Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes his meeting with President George Bush next week will be as successful as the seven previous ones. There are indications this will be so.
For the first time, Sharon and his entourage have been invited to dinner at the White House after the formal working session. American officials this week said the administration understands Israel's comments on the road map very well. It agrees to 12 of the 14 amendments and assumes a creative solution can be found for the two remaining. The prime minister's aides expect the final version of the road map to include the Israeli comments.
Colin Powell and David Satterfield, the envoy who remained for follow-up talks after the secretary of state's visit, told every Israeli they met that President Bush is determined to be personally involved in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The war in Iraq ended in victory and now it's time to implement the presidential vision of "the Palestinian flag, raised above a free, independent state," as Bush said in his speech last Friday.
His listeners had difficulty being convinced after more than two years of the Americans keeping out of the crisis. But those who listened to Bush in private conversations got the impression that he takes the "two-state vision" seriously. The president speaks of freedom and liberation for the Palestinians, and after reading the road map he said it corresponded with the principles of his speech of June 24. He seems to believe the Palestinian state will indeed by established.
How is that to be done? It is hard to demand withdrawals and concessions from Israel, while the terrorism persists. On the other side Abu Mazen's dubious government is floundering. The administration accepts Israel's approach that security comes first. Therefore the test of Bush's seriousness will be his handling of the settlements. Powell promised in an interview with Udi Segal on Channel Two that "President Bush is committed to his vision of June 24, and he expects to speak to the prime minister in very open, straightforward, honest, candid terms" about the settlements.
He noted "there is a question in the minds of Palestinians and questions in the minds of many people around the world as to whether or not one can actually bring into being a viable Palestinian state without doing something about the settlement activity and the outposts and the settlements that are there."
Powell graded the difficulties. He believes it is easier to deal with the outposts than with freezing the construction in the settlements, and a freeze is simpler than dealing with the existing settlements.
This is also the test of Sharon, who insists on maintaining the outposts and continuing the construction to accommodate the "natural growth" in the veteran settlements, without maintaining they contribute to security and preventing terrorism.
Bush can either demand that Sharon take real steps to stop the settlement project in the territories, or merely raise the issue for the protocol and listen to long explanations from the prime minister, as Powell did in Jerusalem. The administration can show Sharon satellite photographs of the building progress in the settlements during his term in office, in violation of Israel's promises. The Americans have shown such photographs to Israeli officials in the past.
And he could make do with the demand that the new inspection team's mandate include supervising the restriction on building in the settlements. Such inspection will make it easier for Sharon in the political showdown, should he suddenly decide to turn his back on his lifetime project.
But Sharon is not at all flustered. He is convinced the settlement issue is not on the agenda and that security must be dealt with first. He knows well that every time the White House's foreign affairs section sought to pressure Israel, its men ran into the more powerful political advisers. They are thinking only of Bush's race for another term next year and of the Jewish voters in Florida, and are therefore careful not to annoy the American Jewish community.
Bush has proved his ability to take diplomatic and military risks, but domestically, he is cautious. After his crushing victory in Iraq and this week's terrorist attack in Riyadh, he is no longer feeling the pressure from Tony Blair and the Saudis. Therefore it seems that this time too, he will prefer understandings and hugs with Sharon over controversy and confrontation.
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