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For years Bill Clinton was the most popular politician in Israel. His theatrical sense fit right in with Israeli taste and he showered the country with warmth on four presidential visits and one more after he left office. His relations with Yitzhak Rabin, and in a different way with Ehud Barak, were a paragon of personal closeness between statesmen.

His positions were less convenient for Israel: Clinton believed in "balance" - security for Israel and respect for the Arabs and strengthening the Arab lobby as a counterweight to AIPAC. But this did not bother the Israelis, who remained his loyal followers.

George Bush's policy was much more supportive from day one. He made it clear that Israel's security and the strengthening of it are a central goal of the United States, one that does not depend on the progress of the peace process or equivalent gestures to the Arabs.

But his attitude remained distant and businesslike. He grew up in an aristocratic society, which was closed to Jews, and his closeness to them is a function of his political aspirations. Even when he praised Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace" and called for the removal of Yasser Arafat, Bush failed to capture the Israelis' heart. His meetings with Sharon did not yield stories of personal chemistry; rather, they were more like a mutual recitation of prepared texts.

The attempts to describe "ideological closeness" between Sharon and Bush and between the Likud and the Republican Party are not convincing. There is no love story here, but a marriage of convenience between two politicians, who appreciate power more than anything else and need each other on their domestic court.

Like all his predecessors since 1948, Bush too is maneuvering between his desire to bring Jewish supporters and votes to his camp, on the eve of contending for his second term, and the United States' strategic need to strengthen the regimes in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo after the American knockout to Iraq.

Behind Bush and Sharon's good relations lies a mutual suspicion. A month ago, when White House officials Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams came to Israel "on the most important visit in years," as Sharon put it, they asked difficult questions about the illegal outposts, and expressed special concern over the attempts to legitimize their establishment retroactively. The understanding they reached, that Israel evacuate only illegal outposts and refrain from removing any other settlement, was accompanied by an American warning to the effect of "don't cheat us."

On the other hand, quite a few Israelis specializing in bilateral relations with the U.S. were surprised by Bush's sudden determination to foist the road map on Sharon and to come to the region himself, to demonstrate that after taking care of Saddam, it is now the Israelis' and Palestinians' turn.

The surprise was not complete. Military intelligence told the cabinet last October that at the end of the war in Iraq, the American efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement were likely to increase. Senior Defense Ministry officials expected Bush "to arrive with a big stick to make order."

Now Bush is trying out the role of Clinton, and is ready to put his prestige on the line in a dispute which has already worn out quite a few presidents and foreign ministers. Already, on his way to the Middle East, Bush got a dose of the complexity of the relations in the region. Instead of calling a spectacular regional conference, as his father did in Madrid, he will have to shuttle between two summit meetings, in Sharm el-Sheikh and in Aqaba, one for the Saudis and one for the Israelis - there is no better manifestation of the duality in the administration's policy.

Bush will pose for photographs with the leaders and return home. The question of his commitment to the peace process will remain open. To succeed in reaching even modest goals, the administration will have to do a lot more than give a presidential handshake to Abu Mazen.

Given the nonexistent level of confidence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, after 32 months of fighting, the Americans will have to build a bridge of active mediation and tight supervision over every clause and issue. Will they want to do so and are they able to in the short time left until the presidential elections, and before the world discovers the depth of the mud into which they've sunk in Iraq?