The March surprise
The prime minister has had the benefit of a six-month break in American intervention - from the terror attacks of September 11, until Cheney's visit - to end the conflict with the Palestinians by means of his tactics of force. He has been unsuccessful and the golden age has come to an end.
The report from the embassy in Washington was brief - all in all, a single page that analyzed the change in the U.S. administration's position toward Israel, namely, the public criticism of the operations of the Israel Defense Forces, and the demands for a full withdrawal from Palestinian-controled Area A and permission for Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut.
The document's author hinted at a lack of sensitivity on the part of his superiors in Jerusalem. The Bush administration understands our constraints and doesn't understand why we can't take its constraints into consideration, he concluded his report.
The current visit of Vice-President Dick Cheney is an opportunity for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to understand what has changed. Are we dealing with tactical positions aimed at koshering Cheney's travels to the Arab capitals, or a real turnaround in the policy of the United States, which is working toward a deal with Saudi Arabia, at Israel's expense? Sharon will try to ascertain the scope of behavior that America is granting him from now.
The prime minister has had the benefit of a six-month break in American intervention - from the terror attacks of September 11, until Cheney's visit - to end the conflict with the Palestinians by means of his tactics of force. He has been unsuccessful and the golden age has come to an end. Now Sharon is being required to bow to dictates from Washington. Israel knew that Cheney was sent to the Middle East to repair relations with the Arab states. "The March surprise" was the speed at which the U.S. administration accepted the demands of its Arab friends - to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before a face-off with Iraq.
The signs are mounting up and are becoming reminiscent of the standard pattern in the relations between Likud governments and Washington. The severe criticism voiced by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell against the IDF operations can be excused by the harsh television pictures coming out of Tul Karm and Ramallah. The surprising Resolution 1397 on a Palestinian state that the United States passed in the UN Security Council can be justified by the tight schedule for UN debates that did not allow for prior consultation with Israel.
And what about the leak concerning the decision to hold back additional aid to Israel? Or the urgent dispatch of envoy Anthony Zinni to the region, without Arafat having met all the American demands? And the sweeping U.S. support for the Palestinian demand that an IDF withdrawal from the territories precede the cease-fire? And the observers who are poised to be deployed in the territories? And the tightening of ties between Washington, the Europeans, the Russians and the UN? And the invitation to Bush's ranch that was extended to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah?
Sharon is wary of confrontations with the administration. He gave in to the U.S. demands, announced concessions that annoyed the right wing, and only asked to hold off on the deployment of the observers. Last week, he still expected Cheney ("You can even hang Arafat") to support the Israeli position, according to which the Palestinian leader wants the escalation and cannot be relied upon. In the meantime, the rope that the U.S. is giving Arafat only seems to be getting longer, as is the Palestinian sense that they have won the current round.
As long as we are dealing with steps toward a cease-fire, Sharon can live with the U.S. administration's new approach. He wasn't all that thrilled by the calls for a reconquest of Gaza and Nablus anyway. The prime minister's real problem will arise when they begin speaking about the content of the "political horizon" and when the demand for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with minor adjustments, is placed on the table.
So far, the Bush administration has avoided expressing support for such a demand; but just last week, Ambassador Dan Kurtzer was asked to comment on the significance of the "Clinton proposals." The former president took them home with him, Kurtzer replied, but they are worthy of review and could be a possible outcome of the negotiations. A personal opinion or a subtle hint from Washington?
Sharon will try to buy more time and put on his best behavior for Zinni and Cheney, in the hope that the Palestinians will, in their own way, spoil the initiative and delay the discussions on the substantial issues. The true test for both sides, and the American mediator, will come in the event of a major terror attack.