About a month ago, a senior Israeli minister lunched with U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney. During the meeting, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon knew about, the Israeli visitor delivered a message to the White House: "You say all the time that Abu Mazen needs to be strengthened. But Sharon is also politically weak and has limited room for maneuver - and not because of the investigations, which won't harm him." Cheney listened attentively and his bureau chief, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, wrote down every word.
Less than three months have gone by since the Aqaba summit and it seems the president's ambitious plan has been added to the junk pile of its predecessors. Mutual fears, miserliness and suspicions by the Israelis and Palestinians have prevented any real progress, the violence has resumed and meanwhile precious time and political capital are being lost. The entanglement in Iraq has weakened the president instead of making a regional change. The Palestinian government has not taken off. The failure of the political process and the awakening of the power struggle inside the Likud have damaged the prime minister in his own ministers' eyes and they are now looking down, toward the central committee members, rather than up at him.
There is a majority in the government now against progress in the political process. Sharon has the support of his deputy, Ehud Olmert, Minister Meir Sheetrit and the four Shinui ministers. He can also count on Silvan Shalom and Shaul Mofaz. The other Likud ministers are not in his pocket. Politicians hate to be identified with failures, and all saw how the MKs who are consistently opposed to the road map, like Gideon Sa'ar and Yisrael Katz, are enjoying growing support in the Likud at the expense of the road map supporters and those on the fence. Limor Livnat regrets her abstention on the road map vote in the government.
The right-wing factions are less afraid of being replaced by Labor, which would cut Sharon off from his political roots and imprison him in a coalition that could only go in one direction - to the left. It's doubtful he will take that risk against the Likud.
According to the prevailing wisdom in the political system and the American administration, Sharon accepted the road map with a lot of good intentions, particularly because he wanted to save the economy. Despite his basic lack of trust in the Arabs, if he were convinced he had a credible Palestinian partner, he would agree to far-reaching steps, like evacuating outposts. Sharon wanted to give it a chance, but Dahlan refused to fight terror and Abu Mazen was exposed as weak.
The breaking point apparently was the last meeting between the two prime ministers before they went separately to Washington at the end of July. Since then Sharon and Abu Mazen have devoted their time to mutual recriminations and the prime minister is back to his original skeptical and suspicious position. Shimon Peres believes Sharon is moving too slowly and with too little and would get a lot more if he displayed some generosity to the Palestinians and wasn't dragged along by the U.S.
But it's doubtful Sharon plans to gallop forward. According to one version, he expected the road map to collapse and only made sure that the failure would not be blamed on Israel. That's why he made the minimum of virtual concessions to the Americans. The evacuation of outposts and lifting checkpoints were about as convincing as Dahlan's photo-op operations against terror in Gaza. But they managed to deflect the pressure from Washington.
In the coming days Bush's vacation in Texas will end and he will have to decide on his next steps in the Middle East. All signs indicate he is still interested and involved but the major factor for him will be the political calculations. Should he take the chance or go with the Jewish and Christian right and Sharon and avoid any extended activity - keeping in mind that some 100 congressmen visited Israel this month, an extraordinary demonstration of support.
It is difficult to assume the president will gamble with his prestige before it becomes clear who is in charge on the Palestinian side, and whether the cease-fire will be rejuvenated because both sides are interested in quiet, or the terror and the assassinations will prevail.
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