At least two television viewers in these parts are going to be mighty jealous today: Arafat, sitting here, and Sharon, sitting there, will watch how President Bush and his top advisers heap royal honors on Abu Mazen - a sight that will be hard for them to swallow.
No more "pathological liar," to quote Bush. No more "man with the hairy face," to quote Begin. No more partisan in military duds, decorated with a medal he gave himself and a spiffy kaffiyeh arranged just so, with a point above the brow. Instead, what we'll be seeing is the first Palestinian prime minister to visit the White House, in a tailored suit, displaying all the mannerisms of a European leader come to talk business.
Sharon wanted so badly to be the first to go to Washington, so that he could be the complainer and Abu Mazen would have to defend himself and fumble for explanations. But even Aryeh Genger, Sharon's unofficial emissary to the White House, couldn't help him. The presidential order was a political version of the plot of "Saving Private Ryan." Like the company of soldiers in the movie, the staff of the White House has been mobilized to save Abu Mazen from those who wish him harm - Arafat, for starters.
Abu Mazen symbolizes the beginning of the reforms and the realization of Bush's vision. For the president, it is important to legitimize Abu Mazen in the eyes of his people and instill in them the belief that they can achieve an independent state through political means, rather than the violence preached by Arafat.
Today, Abu Mazen will meet a president who is full of himself after the targeted assassination of Uday and Qusay. He may hear from Bush that this is the way to fight terror - a hint that this is how he is expected to tackle Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
But weakness has been working in Abbas' favor. He will point out the significant drop in incitement, and that fact that it is no trifling matter to paint over the walls of Gaza, plastered with the names of Palestinian martyrs. He may bring a copy of the weird "Song of Peace" children's video shown on Palestinian TV. He will note how successful he has been in standing up to Arafat. Most of all, he will boast about the hudna agreement with the terror organizations. As long as there is no terror, he will say, why get into a violent confrontation over terrorist infrastructure? Maybe he will repeat Dahlan's line about letting the Palestinians handle things at their own pace, in their own way.
The advantage of getting there first is that a person can pull out a list of gripes and leave it to the next guy to defend himself. Abbas will complain that Sharon has been miserly in making the kind of gestures expected of him. He's been a regular Scrooge about releasing prisoners, dismantling outposts, freezing settlement activity, withdrawing from additional cities and easing restrictions on the Palestinian population. Rather than strengthening him, he will say, Sharon is strengthening Arafat.
Abu Mazen will return from his trip with good vibes and the Americans expecting things from him, but he will leave in his wake plenty of grumbles about Sharon, especially on the subject of the fence, which is taking big bites out of Palestinian territory.
Sharon will be welcomed by Bush next Tuesday as an old friend of the family. They will exchange mutual slaps on the back over the bull's eye that made mincemeat of Saddam's sons. Both are fighting a holy war on terror. After lunch at the White House, they will shake hands warmly and Sharon will go home to his scheduled meeting with Abu Mazen.
If anyone thinks the Americans will use Sharon's visit to turn up the pressure is in for disappointment. Sharon will argue that unless terrorist infrastructure is destroyed, the public will jump down his throat if he is too generous, particularly when it comes to freeing prisoners. Most of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas activists freed in the 1985 Jibril deal have gone back to their old ways. He will explain that 70 percent of the public is against letting terrorists go, and even in the government, he doesn't have a majority, beyond what he pushed through by the skin of his teeth.
There will be no breakthroughs in this double feature at the White House. "Nothing will come of it," say those in the know. Neither Abbas nor Sharon will be pressured, apart from some prodding to do more than they are now. Because the U.S. administration has problems of its own.
One dead soldier a day in Iraq, in a professional army consisting chiefly of married soldiers with families, together with America's deteriorating economy, could lead to a change of priorities in a few months, and knock resolving the conflict in this region off the top of the list. As U.S. elections come closer, everything will focus on the next operation: Saving President Bush.
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