After the Likud Referendum

If Sharon fails with the Likud members, this would put Bush in a very embarrassing light, in that he would be seen as having risked his prestige and thrown his support behind an empty promise.

On the day following the meeting two weeks ago between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George Bush, Israeli diplomats met in Washington with administration officials. The Americans sought to tone down Israel's enthusiasm over Bush's letter to Sharon, which the prime minister had described as a show of diplomatic support "unlike anything since Israel became a state."

They explained to the Israelis that they would soon have to make a countermove in order to mollify their Arab and European friends. But everything that would be announced, they said, trying to soothe the Israeli fears, would in no way contradict the assurances made to the prime minister.

This American zigzag can be expected to begin after the Likud referendum. The administration promised to help Sharon counter the opposition within his party, and therefore accepted most of the demands made by the uncommitted cabinet ministers: no to a withdrawal to the Green Line, and no to return of refugees to Israel. Visits by Arab and European figures to the U.S. were postponed, and diplomatic activity in Israel was reduced to a minimum.

Last week Sharon met with the top brass of the defense establishment, and asked them to continue the staff work required to move ahead with the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria, and to meet with him again after the referendum.

On the day after the vote in the Likud, conditions will change. If Sharon succeeds, he will be tethered to his own disengagement plan, and America will be free to embrace the Europeans and Arabs, without fear that the prime minister will tenaciously cling to Kadim and Netzarim. This has always been the case for Middle Eastern diplomacy - even the Balfour Declaration was formulated unclearly, and attended by parallel and contradictory guarantees by Britain to its Arab allies.

The Americans were evidently unpleasantly surprised by the hostile reaction to the Sharon plan in Europe and in Arab capitals.

The administration's efforts to persuade the sides that this was a historic step, and a chance to uproot the hated settlements, caused little enthusiasm.

In its place came a resurgence of the age-old suspicions of Sharon, who is trying to impose on the Palestinians a militarist solution, with American support. Not coincidentally, the European foreign ministers inserted the words "right of return" in their response, as an expression of their displeasure with Bush's assurances.

Director of the Prime Minister's Office Dov Weisglass and National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, who traveled to Paris, Rome and Moscow last week to explain the disengagement, came up against quite a bit of frustration. Their hosts complained about Israel, which was presenting the international community with a fait accompli and was refusing to collaborate with the Palestinians on the plan.

The French - experienced diplomats that they are - understood that Sharon's intent is to avoid negotiations and to freeze the situation in the West Bank as is, for many years. They therefore dissociated themselves from the Israeli scheme: if they backed the plan in order to help the Palestinians rebuild the Gaza Strip and help transfer to them the houses of the settlements, then by implication they would be accepting the other parts of the plan as well.

The assassinations of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi reinforced the impression that Sharon is reprising the role of regional bully, and is exposing the weakness of the Arabs in the conflict. The Saudi Arabian crown prince, the Emir Abdullah, told one visiting statesman: "We are now weaker than Israel and must accept its actions, but it is not certain that this will be the case in another 10, 20, or 30 years."

Given the present state of trans-Atlantic tension and the Iraq imbroglio, the Americans will have to accommodate Sharon's critics, within the political limitations of a presidential election year. Jerusalem believes that the administration will not retract its declarations on borders and refugees.

According to the positive scenario, the Americans will make do with underscoring the "positive" fundamentals of the Bush letter to Sharon, such as a Palestinian state and an agreed-upon solution. In the worst-case scenario, for Israel, they will add declarations that would meet Palestinian demands, such as exchange of territories.

However, Sharon must get through the referendum first. If he fails with the Likud members, this would put Bush in a very embarrassing light, in that he would be seen as having risked his prestige and thrown his support behind an empty promise. The American response would be in kind.