About a decade has passed since George Bush, the father, forced Yitzhak Shamir to decide what was more important to him - the welfare of the settlements in the territories, or the well-being of all Israel's society and economy. Shamir decided to reject Bush's demand to freeze the settlements, and the American president froze loan guarantees worth ten billion dollars to support aliyah (immigration) from the FSU (former Soviet Union).
There are those in the Bush family and its circle of associates who believe that the confrontation cost the President a second term. Facing Sharon today it is Bush the son's turn to choose between jeopardizing U.S. interests in the Middle East or gambling on a second term.
As though nothing has happened in the past decade, a choice between expanding the settlements in the territories and guaranteeing the strength of Israel's whole society and economy is again on the agenda of Israeli-American relations. As though that were not enough, another Bush-Saddam war is also flaring in the background and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inhibits the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to support the Americans.
The main difference a decade ago was Sharon flanking Shamir on the right and opposing the Madrid international conference held at the end of the Gulf War. Today Prime Minister Sharon is sponsoring a conference idea in advance of an American strike on Iraq.
Reports from Washington indicate that like Sharon, Bush needs such a conference like he needs a migraine. Both men loathe Yasser Arafat, both have to navigate between security-economic pressures and partisan-political realities. Bush wants to get from Sharon the minimum needed to placate the Gulf states so they can agree later to provide bases for a raid on Iraq and not use oil as a weapon. A failure against Saddam and rises in gas prices could spell doom for Bush's chances of a second term no less than would an open conflict with Israel.
A week ago, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah made clear to Bush that the Arabs have had enough of ceremonies, agreements, declarations and conferences. He said if the Americans want to move from mere talk to real action in the Gulf, he must make sure his friend Sharon, the "man of peace," must also make this transition from talk to deeds. So Sharon's plan for a regional conference and a long-term interim agreement does not thrill the Americans. They do not believe the Sharon-Arafat pair can beget anything beyond a temporary lull.
Bush is prepared to exchange the recycled headlines generated by conferences and plans for modest steps carried out on the ground on the basis of existing agreements and old declarations. Hence, the American menu does not relate to territorial concessions - and it most emphatically has no allusion to compromise in Jerusalem or on the refugee issue. As the White House sees it, Sharon's trip will be a success if he simply agrees to implement the next stage of the Mitchell Report, as he has pledged to do in the past.
The report states explicitly that concurrent with the dismantling of the terror infrastructure - a task Israel carried out on its own - Israel is to freeze settlement activity. Officials in the U.S. government are of course aware of the campaign Sharon is waging against those in Likud's leadership who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. If it were up to them, the Americans would be happy to give up on the commitment to a Palestinian state in another ten years, were they to get in exchange a plan to dismantle a settlement or two in the territories in another ten days. But none in the White House are holding their breath for Sharon to agree to evacuate a settlement like Netzarim - something the Prime Minister compared to the evacuation of Tel Aviv.
State Department veterans recall with nostalgia how Secretary of State James Baker persuaded Bush the father to put aside domestic politics and concentrate on the strategic interest of the Middle East peace process. Since then, dozens of settlements have sprouted, hundreds of civilians have been killed, and thousands of hours of mediation effort have yielded a few published memoirs. No wonder this son isn't rushing to follow in the father's footsteps.
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