After more than two years of laxness in the Middle East, there's been a sudden outburst of diplomatic creativity in Washington. Senior officials, frustrated by the freeze, killing, and mockery of the Europeans and Arabs, have found the right answer to Ariel Sharon's "yes, but" and it's "not now."
The administration has been worried that Israeli reservations about the road map would threaten to add it to the junk pile of previous mediation proposals that crashed due to the obstacle of Palestinian terror and the prime minister's polite obstinacy. Therefore, it responded with some stubbornness of its own. Israel wants a Palestinian concession on the right of return? We'll talk about it when the time comes, just as long as we don't create obstacles now. Dov Weisglass wants a new road map, with Israeli comments? No hurry. The administration signals it will support the Israeli positions, but the key is that "we won't waste time on marginal comments," as Condoleezza Rice has said. And thus, the formula has been created that it's more important to stat implementation, and then we'll see. The administration prefers that Sharon reach understandings with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas instead of eroding the road map between Rice and Weisglass. The Palestinians spotted a breach between Jerusalem and Washington and hurried to demand that Sharon accept the map as is.
The Americans made clear to Sharon that like the Israelis, they also believe Abbas' chances of taking control of the Palestinian Authority and smashing terror are very small, but Israel should not be seen as trying to obstruct him. Sharon, who was planning his eighth visit to the White House, decided to show some generosity to Abbas and get an "advance" on his way to see Bush. Just before the meeting with Abbas Saturday night, Sharon reported to the White House a plan for IDF redeployment out of any area where the Palestinians ask to take security responsibility. The Americans responded positively, and at the end of the meeting received the full transcripts.
Sharon knew that Bush was preparing with great seriousness for their meeting. The message from Washington was that the president would want to understand how Sharon intends to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders. Bush was interested in knowing how Sharon perceives the endgame and the way to get it. The administration agreed that the Palestinians have to operate first against terror, but demanded Israel not tarry with its reciprocal measures.
The settlements were the most sensitive issue on the agenda for the talks. Maybe that's why there was a plan, for the first time in Bush-Sharon meetings, for a one-on-one session. On the settlements issue, Israel doesn't have many supporters in Washington. The neo-conservatives, who identify with Sharon's war on terror, are mostly opposed to settlers capturing hilltops in the West Bank. The visit by White House emissaries Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams, who took a helicopter flight with Sharon over the West Bank, focused mostly on the settlements. Sharon explained to them the importance of "security zones" around the Palestinian population centers, and was asked if he wanted to hold on to them in the permanent agreement. His answer was that in the final phase, there will be more "painful concessions."
Israel expected that the president would demand the evacuation of illegal outposts and make clear the need to deal with the veteran settlements as negotiations proceed. Israel presented a three-part formula: regarding outposts, "what's legal is legal, what's not will be evacuated"; settlement growth will be limited to "natural growth" inside built-up areas; the fate of existing settlements will be determined in final-status negotiations. Colin Powell showed some understanding when he told Egyptian TV that the outposts have to be evacuated, but it's impossible to blithely ignore the veteran settlements, where people have been living "for a generation."
And then came the terror attacks over the weekend. Sharon postponed his trip to Washington, and the administration woke up to new frustration and despair. Weisglass headed off to Washington again to discuss saving the political process from another collapse and to present evidence to his hosts of Abbas' weakness against the pressure from the terror groups and Yasser Arafat.
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