After Arafat and Saddam, What Then?

The status quo is highly convenient for Sharon in an election year, and also very convenient for Bush. In the White House they're waiting for Saddam to disappear, and then they'll rearrange the Middle East, while Sharon threatens to reconquer the Gaza Strip.

Before his overseas trips, Ariel Sharon always dispatches a high-ranking intelligence official in advance to bring his hosts new incriminating information about the Palestinians. This time Avi Dichter is the advance man sent to meet senior CIA officials and Condoleezza Rice. Dichter said Israel's control over the territories is the way to prevent terror because the Palestinian Authority is not doing anything and leaving the field open to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Sharon's meeting with President Bush will take place in the shadow of the U.S. plans for an assault on Iraq. The media can talk about "coordination" between Israel and the U.S., about the defense umbrella, advance warnings, and Patriot missile deployment. But that's only a cover for the real issue. Israel has nothing to look for in Iraq and Bush doesn't need any operational guidance from Sharon.

What they will negotiate is how much freedom of action Sharon has regarding the Palestinians while the Americans prepare for war - and during it. Sharon's message is that the Palestinians and perhaps Hezbollah are plotting to exploit the Iraqi crisis to conduct terrorist attacks, on the assumption that the U.S. will handcuff Israel and prevent it from reacting.

The administration wants Israel to sit quietly and not interfere in enlisting support for an assault on Saddam Hussein. That's why they demanded Israel withdraw from the Muqata, and reacted angrily to the IDF operation in Gaza.

Sharon will claim that pressure rewards terrorism and will depict the Palestinians as Iraq's allies, just like Bush is trying to couple Saddam and al-Qaida. It is no accident that this week Israeli officials released information about Iraqi financial aid to Palestinians.

The Israeli message can also be read in the opposite way. The Iraq crisis is a good opportunity to deliver the coup de grace to the Palestinian intifada, and thus improve Israel's opening position in negotiations after Arafat and Saddam are out of the way.

The prime minister has developed an effective method for talking to Bush, based on Sharon's old image as a regional rogue. He threatened to attack Iraq if Scuds fall in Israel and in return received an American promise to foil any such launches. He hinted he'd destroy the Wazzani River pumping station in Lebanon and the administration set off to calm things between Lebanon and Israel. Now Sharon is threatening to reconquer the Gaza Strip.

The Bush administration does not want to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Its chances of success are nil, as proved by the serial failures of all previous initiatives. Bush's June 24 speech only tightened Israel's grip on the territories. The Palestinian Authority reforms are considered a joke, and the international community has given up. The Europeans send their foreign policy supremo Javier Solana to the region, but he has no authority. European leaders like Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair deal with the serious issues - like Iraq - themselves, nationally, not via Brussels.

Sharon's associates promise that the political process will dawn once Arafat is gone. Their leaked secrets from covert talks with Palestinian leaders in which the two sides dismiss Arafat are as valueless as Israeli ministers complaining about Sharon.

The status quo is highly convenient for Sharon in an election year, and also very convenient for Bush. The administration demands that Israel take "humanitarian steps," like transferring money to the Palestinians, but doesn't demand withdrawal from the Palestinian cities. Even the doves in the State Department agree there's no chance for progress while Arafat remains.

In the White House they're waiting for Saddam to disappear, and then they'll rearrange the Middle East. And to the end of days, the Israelis and Palestinians will fight, and Sharon will ask Bush for the freedom to smash the final remnants of the Oslo Accords.