Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns found Yasser Arafat in high spirits on Tuesday. The rais is enjoying the pictures of demonstrations in support of him in the territories, Arab capitals, and worldwide. What does he care if President Bush called him a terrorist and Sharon a man of peace?
Bush has convinced Arafat that the facts on the ground won't change the president's mind about the Palestinian leadership or his attitude toward the Israeli government. There's nothing better than the extradition of Rehavam Ze'evi's assassins to prove how helpless the superpower has become.
The U.S. was the bridesmaid of the deal that doesn't require the Palestinians to hand over wanted men, unless the PA refused to put them on trial. The Americans were also those who gave Arafat the demand to arrest the suspects in Ze'evi's murder. They know the Palestinians succeeded where the Israelis failed. The three were arrested in Area B - in other words, in a zone where Israel has security control and outside the jurisdiction of the Palestinian security services.
Moreover, the IDF and Shin Bet accompanied the suspects from Nablus to the jail in Ramallah after an understanding was reached that Arafat himself would make sure they were put on trial. Yet, after all that, Israel now makes the end of its siege on Arafat conditional on handing over the suspects, and Sharon wins praise as a man of peace from Bush.
The professionals in the State Department this week were saying that they wouldn't be surprised if Bush's meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, at Bush's Texas ranch ends with Bush announcing that Sharon's refusal to free Arafat could lead the region to war. The truth is, say those in the know in Washington, the administration's policy is remade daily, according to the answer that the White House spokesmen gets from his bosses to the question, "What do I tell the press today?"
In the territories, the Arab world, and in Israel, Bush's support for Sharon is being credited to the pro-Israel lobby, meaning Jewish money and the Christian right. The Congressional elections are on the horizon (November) and it's a big difference for the president if he spends the next two years until 2004 fighting a Democratic congress or enjoys the home court in the legislature. On the eve of Bush's decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East, state department professionals convinced Bush that it was important to quell the violence in the territories before assaulting Iraq. The U.S. military supported that view, emphasizing the critical importance of the ground bases in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for the success of the mission.
But according to a well-placed American source, the weather vane turned while Powell was locked in an attempt to grab Sharon by the horns and lasso him to the loose end the prime minister gave Powell in the form of the regional peace conference. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, asked Bush what kind of coalition-shmoalition he needed to win the war in Afghanistan. They calmed his concerns by saying there's no chance the situation in the territories will shake the regimes of Mubarak in Egypt and the Abdullahs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Arab dictators, they said, know how to deal with their opponents. And if that wasn't enough for Bush to order Powell not to commit CIA director George Tenet and the regional conference from going into motion, his father's friends reminded him about the headache Bill Clinton ended up with at Camp David.
Last Saturday, the president convened his advisors in Camp David, for another discussion of the crisis in the territories and Iraq. They decided to sit on the fence. True, maybe in another week they'll put down a foot on this or that side - but only for a moment - and in any case, a political process is not made with a weather vane. The peace camp in Israel should take its eyes off the western horizon and draw the appropriate conclusions.
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