Analysis: Bush's determination surprised Israel
At Aqaba, Ariel Sharon discerned a messianic passion in the U.S. president.
U.S. President George W. Bush's resolve to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward surprised many Israelis, who believed that the current administration in Washington fears stepping into the Middle East quagmire and will make do with diplomatic lip service only.
But Bush has undergone a change, as discovered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at their meeting in Aqaba last Wednesday. Bush had spoken of his desire for an Israeli-Palestinian accord in the past too, but not with much enthusiasm. This time, Sharon discerned a messianic passion he hadn't seen before.
The practical expressions of U.S. involvement have been the multitude of trips to the region made by high-ranking U.S. officials since the war in Iraq, the Israeli government's forced acceptance of the road map, the meticulous staging of the Aqaba summit, and the decision to place the handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of the agendas of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The American moves raise questions: Did the White House surprise Israel? What did Sharon know about the goings-on in Washington? What did the assessments in Jerusalem say?
An analysis of the American statements and talks with sources in the know with regard to Israel-U.S. relations reveal that Bush and his aides made their intentions very clear to Israel, but that Jerusalem mistakenly assessed the power of the presidential resolve and its timing.
According to one senior political source, "There were no surprises between ourselves and the Americans. We haven't been caught unawares by any move, and we were always given the opportunity to express our position. It was clear that after Iraq, they were going to devote their attention to this; but the timing was surprising because no one expected the war in Iraq to be so brief."
The source said no one in Israel, Washington or the Palestinian Authority had attributed much significance to the road map. On two occasions, however, the U.S. administration decided to move the plan forward - once due to intervention on the part of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who ran into political trouble on the eve of the war in Iraq; and again because of a move made by the Palestinians, who believed that Sharon would be unable to get the road map through the cabinet and tried to push him into a corner.
Sharon's biggest concern was that after the war in Iraq, Israel would be asked to pay in concessions and that the pressure on the Palestinians would diminish. The high-ranking political source said that the success of the Aqaba summit lies in the fact that the major portion of the discussions were devoted to the immediate need for the Palestinians to combat terror and contribute to security, while there was little talk of the political price Israel will have to pay thereafter.
There have been three turning points in the involvement of the U.S. administration - the appointment in March of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister; the U.S. victory in Iraq in April; and Bush's decision from last month to force the road map on Israel and convene a summit in the region.
Bush made his intentions clear on several occasions: On the eve of the war in Iraq, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Dov Weisglass, and National Security Adviser Ephraim Halevy visited Washington. They were told that Bush was about to deliver a statement in which he would announce his personal commitment to implementation of the road map. In the background was pressure from Blair for Bush to step up his involvement, and the appointment of Abbas as prime minister.
According to U.S. sources, Bush met with Weisglass and Halevy for 30 minutes on March 13. During the meeting, the president explained the backdrop to his statements, speaking of the need to move forward and the appointment of Abbas. He also denounced PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and voiced his determination and moral justification for going to war in Iraq.
The next day, Bush announced that the road map would be submitted to the sides with the swearing-in of Abbas. The U.S. administration also promised to listen to Israel's remarks on the plan.
At the height of the war, toward the end of March, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom traveled to Washington, where Bush made it clear to him that it was important for Israel to help Abbas succeed, and also spoke of his vision to bring freedom and liberty to the Palestinians. Shalom returned to Israel and said to Sharon: "The man is determined. He has much appreciation for the relations between you, but he is determined to lead the Israelis and Palestinians to an accord."
In early May, Bush met with a delegation of U.S. Jewish leaders, one of whom said afterward that Bush had made the following statement about Sharon: "I saved his ass in Iraq. He owes me, and I intend to collect the debt."
The administration's central message was that the victory in Iraq and Abbas's appointment as prime minister create a not-to-be-missed opportunity to move the political process forward. Sharon responded with similar messages in his holiday interviews in April.
Since then, there have been numerous meetings, contacts and talks, culminating in the Aqaba summit.
Political sources said yesterday that it was still early to predict how the U.S. involvement would develop in the wake of the Aqaba meet. The prevailing view in Jerusalem is that more than anything, Bush wants to be re-elected in 2004, and is not after the Nobel Peace Prize.
His personal involvement, the sources say, stems from the criticism - domestic and international - he came under for stepping back from the conflict. An achievement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena will reduce the pressure on the White House; but if Bush runs into difficulties, he will immediately suspend his involvement, they say.