Sharon v. Blair

It is difficult to find a senior Israeli minister, officer or official that has not declared in recent months that the war with Iraq will make it possible to remove Yasser Arafat and renew the peace process from a position of advantage.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in Israel's criticism of the European position in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the senior ranks in his ministry mobilized to refute the link the leaders of the European Union created between the crisis in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu wrote to his 15 European colleagues and warned them against tying the two issues together. But the connection between Iraq and the Palestinians was, in fact, created by Israel.

It is difficult to find a senior Israeli minister, officer or official that has not declared in recent months that the war with Iraq will make it possible to remove Yasser Arafat and renew the peace process from a position of advantage.

The Israeli criticism has different motives. Now, at the head of his new government, Ariel Sharon is setting out on a new campaign to do away with the "road map." He is aiming for a new understanding with the United States to replace the one tainted by European influence. In the Prime Minister's Office and the Israel Defense Forces, the "road map" is viewed as a flawed document, born out of American lip service to the Europeans and Arabs, who take exception to the attack on Saddam Hussein.

With the help of his friends in the White House, Sharon has managed to delay publication of the "road map" as an international program for an imposed settlement. The upcoming war in Iraq has given him additional time to prepare for the "day after," when he will try to mobilize Bush for his side.

Sharon's rivals for the president's ear can be found in Europe, not the Middle East. The Arab world is divided and conflicted, and paying the price of 9/11 with loss of influence. The United States has ignored its Arab friends on the way to Iraq. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been courting Sharon following two years of boycott and sharp criticism, and is trying to restrain the Palestinians. The Saudis have begun talking about internal reforms. No Arab leader has an open door at the White House like that enjoyed by the Israeli premier. The fear of an American-Saudi understanding to get Israel out of the territories, like after the 1991 Gulf War, has never seemed further away.

The place of Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah as the patrons of the Palestinians is now being filled by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Jerusalem, jokes can be heard about the split in the European camp between supporters and opponents of the United States. But the dispute exists only surrounding the issue of Iraq. Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the roles are reversed: Germany and France are keeping silent; while Britain and Spain want Bush to pad their support for the attack on Iraq with Israeli concessions - "Sharon for Saddam."

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar visited the Bush ranch in Texas on the weekend and spent hours trying to convince the president to advance the "road map." The American administration refused to commit itself. Blair's special envoy, Lord Michael Levy, traveled to Washington last week and met with Elliot Abrams, who holds the Middle East portfolio in the National Security Council. Levy passed on a message from the Palestinians and asked the United States to respond favorably to the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, even if he seems to be an Arafat man. Abrams listened attentively, but projected a lack of urgency to become involved in the conflict. The British got the impression that the publication of the "road map" would have to wait until after the war.

The influence of the Europeans is limited. France and Germany will not support the war in Iraq even in return for a Palestinian flag on the Temple Mount, and Bush has not promised them anything. Britain, Spain and Italy will go with Bush, regardless of Sharon's concessions. And this is why the Americans have no real reason to pressure the prime minister now. The question is whether Bush will have to repay diplomatic debts to those leaders that supported him.

Israeli sources believe that the purpose of the British intervention on behalf of the Palestinians is to pacify Blair's rivals from the British left, and will lose its momentum after the war. Israeli officials have refrained from leveling criticism at the British prime minister; and here and there, words of praise can be heard. This is apparently a sign for the future. In the coming weeks, Sharon will try to neutralize, or at least mitigate, Blair's influence on his American ally.