Bush's Selective Hearing

American officials said that Sharon's unilateral plan was designed 'for internal political consumption,' that his messages are purposely vague and that he promised advanced coordination with the administration.

The American response to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Herzliya speech was characterized by selective hearing. The administration related only to the section in which Sharon reiterated his promises to stick to the road map, to dismantle the outposts and to ease life for the Palestinians.

The other sections, which attracted much attention in Israel, encountered explicit disregard in Washington. There no one gets excited over the talk about evacuating isolated settlements, and even ignores the intentions to "reinforce the hold" on other areas in the territories.

Like the right-wing ministers who remain in the government "until Sharon does something," the Americans are skeptical about his ability to perform. It's a shame to waste energy on a virtual plan. American officials said that Sharon's unilateral plan was designed "for internal political consumption," that his messages are purposely vague and that he promised advanced coordination with the administration.

When he comes to coordinate, he will be asked about his intentions. If he evacuates settlements, there will be no objections, but there is also no enthusiastic anticipation for such a move. Even Sharon's threat to the Palestinians, that if they miss the negotiations they will receive "much less," did not arouse any excitement. The American officials mentioned that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia had also threatened Israel, and they said that this is the accepted language in the Middle East.

There is much hypocrisy in the American position. The administration is cleaving to the road map as if it were scripture, even though it is well known that its chances for realization are negligible, and no one is lifting a finger to save it. The administration is pinning its hopes on Qureia. Despite his considerable experience, his wit and his demonstrations of power opposite Sharon, Qureia is not convincing in his seriousness and his ability to move forward, and is perceived as an insubstantial and useless figure.

Even in such a situation, however, "We still have not reached the point at which we will change our policy toward [Yasser] Arafat," said one senior American official this week, "even though we have not succeeded in our efforts to remove him from center stage."

Sharon is disappointing, too. It is hard to tell how much U.S. President George W. Bush is really angry at him for not fulfilling his promises regarding the evacuation of outposts. It is clear that Bush is not pleased. According to one of the president's friends, Bush views the terror attacks, and not the settlements, as the main obstacle to peace. But he is sick of hearing the complaints and grumblings of his European colleagues about the settlements, when he has no answer, and Sharon is not helping him. Bush apparently also understands the security need for the separation fence, and is not moved by his aides' contentions regarding the suffering it is causing the Palestinians.

From the America's perspective, the difference between the two sides is that Qureia is perceived as powerless and regarding Sharon, it is questionable whether he cannot evacuate outposts, or does not want to. The riddle of Sharon's intentions is still puzzling officials and analysts in Washington, but their deliberations have no practical significance.

American activity centers on futile talks between U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer and the Defense Ministry, in an attempt to move the fence and to draft a list of outposts.

The Palestinians hear anger and threats stemming from their failure to capture the murderers of American security guards in Gaza. So what. Both sides register their complaints and comments, and continue on their way.

Israel is benefiting from the American actions against its enemies in the region: the conquest of Iraq, the disarming of Libya, heightened supervision in Iran, the approaching sanctions against Syria. The administration has asked Israel mainly not to interfere, and so Israel was therefore left in the dark regarding the secret talks with Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi. Sharon was not insulted. It is convenient for him when the White House is busy with presidential elections and fears annoying the Jews, particularly when there is no Palestinian partner.

After Israel complained about the initial, lukewarm response to Sharon's speech, the U.S. administration hastened to publish some positive spin. Even that correction, however, was designed to help the U.S. agenda, and not to express involvement. This line will continue at least until after the U.S. elections, and it is doubtful whether Sharon will try to jeopardize the situation.