Bush Holds the Keys to Israeli Withdrawal

The start of the Israeli withdrawal, yesterday, from Tul Karm and Qalqilyah, proves President George Bush is more of an influence on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz.

Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was photographed on Friday at the headquarters of the IDF's Jenin command, where he announced to the public that the battle for the nearby refugee camp should end that same day. It has been four days since then, there has been no conclusion to the fighting, and yesterday's toll was the heaviest since Operation Protective Wall began.

Some 12 months ago, when Israel first entered the Palestinian-controlled areas in response to mortar fire on Beit Hanun in the northwest Gaza Strip, Mofaz pulled the rug from underneath the feet of the commander of the IDF's Gaza command, Brigadier General Yair Naveh, simply because the latter recited the same text that had been composed by Mofaz's bureau: The IDF will remain in Area A for as long as needed, whether that be days, weeks or even months.

Now Mofaz, with no government above him, has to reprimand himself. By stating that his forces need two four-month periods to complete their task, Mofaz goaded the U.S. administration into reacting with U.S. President Bush's speech on April 4, in which he layed out his vision of the Middle East, and the dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region - a dubious birthday present for Powell's 65th birthday.

The start of the Israeli withdrawal, yesterday, from Tul Karm and Qalqilyah, proves Bush is more of an influence on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than Shaul Mofaz. For American administrations, the Israeli-Arab theater is the same kind of fatal "powder keg" as Jenin, which all who enter risk their lives. Traditionally, Republican administrations have initiated, while Democrats have always responded to events. Bush junior is following in the footsteps of former presidents Richard Nixon (the Rogers plan during the War of Attrition, UN resolution 338, and the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger during the Yom Kippur War), Ronald Reagan (the plan to end the war in Lebanon) and Bush senior (the Madrid Conference and the subsequent initiatives). Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were called upon to join bipartisan negotiations (Begin-Sadat and Rabin-Arafat), that actually began without their involvement. The constant variable is the strength of the president, at home and abroad. When the U.S. president is sitting comfortably in the White House and is determined to promote his policies in the region, he is able to dictate to Israel and the Arab nations how to overcome the differences between them.

The process, overall, is good for Israel, since the Arabs are sent one basic conclusion: using violence against Israel will not help their cause, as that will only strengthen American support and defense of Israel, and only the Americans are able to take the IDF out the areas over which it has taken control. It does not matter whether the incursions are temporary or permanent, because the Arabs will always cry occupation. During the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan promised that Israel "has no intention of occupying", and he was not lying. Somehow, the goals became muddled and the occupation went on.

Bush supported Israel's actions against terrorism and he - not Yasser Arafat - is gradually disengaging the IDF from the cities of the West Bank. And anyone who wants to see Israel withdraw has to live up to Bush's expectations. Some of Powell's energies are being directed toward the Arab leaderships - the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Palestinians. Arab leaders are being called upon to influence Arafat; Powell will try and involve regional leaders in a process that will end with the convening of three-party security talks. Without Arab leverage over Arafat, Powell is expected to replace retired general Anthony Zinni in his Sisyphean task - going back and forth between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington in a series of endless and unproductive shuttles.

Sharon recognizes the facts of life; that is why he told the New York Times that he wants to bestow on the region the Bush-Sharon plan, along the same lines of the Marshall Plan. If Arafat sticks by his disobedient position and denies the Powell mission an immediate achievement, it will cause the Americans to wash their hands of him completely, and it will also create the emergence of an alternative, civilian, local and security-minded leadership, which will renew talks with Israel. The government and senior army officers are hoping, as always, for a Palestinian leadership strong enough to lay down the rule of law, but not strong enough to object to Israel's demands. In the absence of any kind of leadership, which looks destined to emerge only after Arafat is "no longer in the picture", there is no one to whom Israel can turn over the keys. By the time a new leadership appears, the keys may have been crushed beneath the wheels of a wayward tank.