Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's foreign policy is meant to achieve one thing: to gain time to survive in power without giving up territory and settlements. So far, Sharon has not done badly on this account, and on his fifth and most-recent visit to the White House, he did not depart from that line. As in his previous trips to America, this time he brought a cornucopia of ideas and proposals, all meant to postpone any discussion of the essence, by busying regional diplomacy with procedural issues and other conditions for talks.
Sharon is always ready for painful concessions and compromises, but only at the end. First the terror has to stop, democracy and transparency must be instituted in the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia needs to be reprimanded for financially supporting the families of suicide bombers. True, he once agreed to a Palestinian state, but it's too soon to talk about it. First let them undertake deep reforms in their government, security and economy. Then we'll see. The regional conference is vital, but only if it lacks content and authority and serves as a stage for a photo-op of the prime minister with some Arab leaders.
Sharon's aides were convinced the meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush would go well, and the president would repay him generously for agreeing to let PA leader Yasser Arafat out of the siege in Ramallah and put the murderers of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in the hands of British warders. A lot of effort went into the planning for the meeting, and the results were evident in the warmth Bush exuded toward Sharon, whom the president referred to as "my friend the prime minister." The White House made clear that Sharon would make a mistake by wasting the president's precious time on another discussion of expelling Arafat. Sharon got the message. He quickly corrected his talking points and erased "neutralizing Arafat," which was the top of the list. Instead of dealing with Palestinian appointments, Sharon presented his principles for "proper government" for the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon was pleased as he came out of the Oval Office. Bush also spoke with him about Israel's contribution to advancing the political process, freezing the settlements and getting into negotiations over the establishment of a Palestinian state, also making clear he does not expect quick payment. Dealing with the settlements is important, said a senior White House official, but only "in a wider context," and "when the time comes." Bush enthusiastically bought into Sharon's ideas about reforms, and Bush's aides took flight on a vision of a Palestinian state with a democratic constitution, security forces that fight terror and a treasury free of corruption. That's how both leaders circumvented their main argument over whether Israel has to talk with Arafat or not.
Bush has no interest in pressuring Sharon at this time. The administration believes it would be wasted time to invest efforts in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the president is only interested in the appearances of involvement, to soften the arguments against his "neglecting the region." That's why he also invited the Saudi foreign minister and king of Jordan to Washington this week.
The diplomatic dance that Bush and his aides did with their guests from the Middle East raised a lot of smoke with very little content. The regional conference is a good idea, they say in the White House, but don't expect a spectacular event or breakthrough. The sides will come, talk and go home. The Saudis, meanwhile, aren't enthusiastic about taking part in a show like that.
The terror attack in Rishon Lezion, while the Oval Office meeting was under way, proved the limits of American influence. The administration is committed to fighting terrorism and can't confront Sharon when Israelis are being killed in suicide bombings. But by the same token, all the talk about reforms in the Palestinian Authority are meaningless when terror strikes the Israeli hinterland, raising doubts about the efficacy of Operation Defensive Shield. The Palestinians proved once again that any attempt to dictate a solution over their heads, in talks Bush holds with Sharon and "responsible Arab leaders," are bound to be smashed to smithereens in a new round of violence.
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