Background / Bush's Sharon Problem

It has taken all the diplomatic running that Ariel Sharon can do, to keep in the same place. But Bush's worsening plight in Iraq may actually be working to Sharon's advantage, inadvertently lending the prime minister an effectively free hand in policymaking.

In the Looking Glass world of Middle Eastern diplomacy, with an impatient George Bush keeping close watch, it has taken all the running that Ariel Sharon can do, to keep in the same place.

But Bush's worsening plight in Iraq may actually be working to Sharon's advantage, inadvertently lending the prime minister a free hand in policymaking.

With less than a year remaining before the president's political fate is decided in balloting across America, however, both will have to tread carefully to avoid becoming the victims of regional circumstance, or of a collision between the two allies who came to power within weeks of each other in 2001.

Bush is emerging from a month that saw more than 100 coalition deaths in Iraq, among them 74 Americans, 19 Italians, seven Spaniards, two Japanese and two South Koreans.

The American president has responded in recent weeks with military steps that have proven uncomfortably reminiscent of Israel's battle against the intifada. Facing down bombs and roadside ambushes - and grisly scenes of Iraqis kicking coalition corpses - the U.S. command has employed punishing Apache gunship and F-16 air strikes, restrictions on civilian travel, and even house demolitions.

Bush faces a diplomatic juggling act of daunting proportions. Needing to keep his friends close and his allies closer, he can little afford to let his occupation of Baghdad and Samarra take on the colors of Sharon's occupation of Bureij and Samaria.

At the same time, George W. Bush cannot afford a misstep with Ariel Sharon. Nor, in the long run, can Sharon afford one with Bush.

Accordingly, when U.S. troops recently began leveling structures used by suspected Iraqi insurgents, Pentagon officials were quick to reject any comparison to house demolitions carried out by the IDF.

Yet comparisons may be prove unavoidable, especially if Sharon's military campaign in the territories is not accompanied by an assiduous, high-profile effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

Worse for Bush, the comparisons feed regional paranoia and conspiracy theories, says Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar.

When Bush's allies in Europe and the Arab world view the coalition presence in Iraq, "the question comes down to one of double standards," Eldar notes.

"The U.S. role is to fight terrorism in Iraq, but the U.S. is also the occupier. If Israel is an occupier and the U.S is an occupier, and the U.S. is seen as not doing anything about the Israeli occupation, then in some Arab eyes, there is a grand conspiracy here on the part of the Israelis and the Americans to take over the Middle East."

Sharon is mindful of increasingly vocal Bush administration pressure to make bold peace moves, as well as polls showing growing domestic support for a fistful of alternative peace plans, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian accord being launched Monday in marquee ceremonies in Geneva.

In recent days, bucking - or perhaps riding - the Geneva tide, Sharon has broken new verbal ground by hinting at the possibility of uprooting established settlements, a pivotal issue in the Mideast conflict.

Close monitoring by the CIA, the State Department, and local diplomats has made it clear to Bush, though, that the only actual ground the Sharon government has broken is for new stretches of West Bank barriers and new neighborhoods of West Bank settlements.

The IDF has concurrently kept up pressure on the Palestinians. Though it has scaled back its assassination missions against Hamas, Jihad and Al-Aqsa commanders, hours before Israeli and Palestinian delegates left for the Geneva ceremonies Monday, the IDF sent members of a wide array of commando units into Yasser Arafat's headquarters city of Ramallah in an intensive manhunt for underground Hamas fugitives.

It has taken all the running that Bush himself has managed, to keep from slipping further in crucial opinion polls on the eve of an election year. With the U.S. economy showing positive if fragile signs of recovery, the Middle East morass may well represent his toughest electoral burden.

Bush, hoping to bring European and Arab allies closer by distancing himself a notch from Sharon, declared on a visit to Britiain last week that, "Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and not prejudice final negotiations with the placements of walls and fences."

In the context of Israeli inaction, the administration's entreaties have been widely viewed as lip service. This has been especially true when the sanctions for such Washington-condemned policies as the settler-altered route of the West Bank fence proved to be little more than slaps on the budgetary wrist.

Last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell took the pressure up a grade, granting a carefully calibrated measure of legitimacy to the Geneva Accord by welcoming it as "important and potentially useful," while quickly reiterating the U.S. commitment to the road map.

Sharon's deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert was just as quick to wave off Powell's remarks. "We know the State Department headed by Colin Powell isn't exactly a hothouse of empathy for Israel," Olmert told Army Radio, adding, in a reference to the Bush White House, that the State Department "has always been less sympathetic to Israel, while in other quarters it is different."

The diplomatic tennis game had one more set to run, as U.S. embassy spokesman Paul Patin rejected Olmert's claims. "There is only one U.S. foreign policy and the State Department and the White House share that policy."

All in all, Bush's troubles in the quicksand occupation of Iraq have effectively aided Sharon, at least in the short term, Eldar argues.

A few weeks ago, in the course of a periodic strategic dialogue between Israeli and American officials, "there was an exchange of views and tips on how to deal with terrorism and occupation. The Israelis gave the Americans advice on such issues as how to keep the war against terrorism separate from innocent civilians.

"Now it has become harder for the Americans to criticize Israel. They are paralyzed, actually. Their hands are tied. Sharon now has a free ride, because the Americans are doing exactly what Israel is doing, in such policies as putting restrictions on movement of civilians. Civilians have already been hurt, and now the Americans are starting to use airstrikes."

In the back of his mind, Bush sees this as a problem, Eldar continues. "But Bush has gotten the message that he must be very careful, because if Sharon feels that Bush is abandoning him, or not giving him the full support that Sharon has become addicted to already, then Sharon can become very nasty. And this is not the time for Bush to take such risks."

As a result, Bush is trying to do everything in his power to avoid any semblance of confrontation, Eldar concludes.

"Bush has much more to lose than Sharon. Sharon has a stable coalition, Bush faces a touch-and-go election. Sharon has the full support of the Jewish community. Bush knows that Jewish voters are still likely to go for a Democrat."

If Sharon has an apparent free hand under the present conditions, all parties are aware that present conditions can change with blinding rapidity.

The White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and other security agencies now share "a unanimous perception that Israel is not complying (with the road map's provisions) - and hasn't met their expectations for compliance, that followed Israel's acceptance of the road map. Bush knows this also, and it is very clear that he is disappointed, even upset about it."

Sharon's challenge now is to keep from overplaying his hand, and to refrain from making it overly obvious that he his having his policy cake and eating it as well.

Otherwise, he may find himself at the business end of a backlash, with Bush unable or unwilling to continue to put off allies who want to know if the president is lying to them - when he says they are right - or to Sharon, when he publicly at least tells the prime minister the same thing.

Should Sharon go too far in suggesting that his honeymoon with the Bush administration is unaffected by lack of Israeli movement on the road map, the delicate dance of advantages may turn on a dime.

As if to keep Bush administration wounds freshly salted, Sharon's widely trumpeted hints last week about territorial compromise had hardly landed when Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told a nationwide radio audience that the government was preparing to legalize a number of West Bank outposts.

"If Sharon makes a mistake, if he is seen as the bully, if he fails to remove the outposts, if he continues to build settlements and keeps embarrassing Bush, the balance of interests may be damaged," Eldar says.

"The balance may shift against Sharon and his Jewish allies and in favor of Europe and the Arabs.

"What Bush needs to do now is to manage a fine tuning between his interests, with respect to Europe and Arab countries, in order to dispel the image that he is Sharon's puppet."

Moderate voices within Sharon's cabinet this week expressed similar sentiments and apprehensions.

"We are losing the battle for world public opinion, and there is even a rift between us and the United States," Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid told the cabinet Sunday, lashing out at Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for inaction on the most basic and uncontentious of the U.S.-backed road map peace plan's demands on Israel, removal of illegal settlement outposts.

"For weeks I've been listening to promises, and nothing has happened."

With Bush advisers, even those of the neo-conservative stripe of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, lobbying for diplomatic movement to calm the Israeli-Palestinian region, Sharon may have reached a similar conclusion himself, of late.

He has privately pushed Lapid to step up the campaign for concessions to the Palestinians. He has also dispatched his son and sounding-board Omri to London for British-brokered talks - outwardly inconclusive - with the Palestinian Authority's best-known and best-informed "Old Israel Hands," among them Yasser Arafat's security advisor Jibril Rajoub, and senior PA lawmaker Ziad Abu Ziyyad, a staple of Israeli radio and television news talk shows.

Sharon has also pumped up the volume on declarations that, should he choose to act on them, could be clearly interpreted as signals to prepare a polarized Israeli public for the internal upheavals inherent in a real peace process with the Palestinians.

While Sharon recovered at his Negev ranch form a bout of the flu Monday, he sent his deputy prime minister and primary mouthpiece Ehud Olmert to address the annual memorial for Sharon's onetime commander in chief, Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

In remarks quoted by Israel Radio, Olmert, who for weeks has been hinting at plans for territorial compromise, declared, "Soon the leaders of Israel will have to summon all of the forces of their souls in order to take a decision on the fate of the nation."