Will Bush Change His Spots?

The minute Abu Mazen sits down in the prime minister's chair, the administration will be a lot less tolerant of Israeli use of force, from the separation fence and expansion of settlements to harm done to Palestinians.

President George Bush was determined. "You must do something to help Abu Mazen succeed as the Palestinian prime minister," he told the Israeli foreign minister last week.

Silvan Shalom tried to explain that the appointment of Abu Mazen was a positive step but Israel would examine his moves, etc. Bush cut him off. "It is important to me that you help him so he succeeds."

At a meeting of the Middle East "managers" at the top of the U.S. administration, the president turned to William Burns, the State Department official who carries the Middle East portfolio, and said, "Bring me Abu Mazen." Burns responded that the timing was problematic. An American embrace right now could hurt the rising leader. "I want him in Washington," the president said.

Israelis home from Washington are reporting on the rumors in the city: The president wants "something big" in the Middle East after his victory in Iraq. The minute Abu Mazen sits down in the prime minister's chair, the administration will be a lot less tolerant of Israeli use of force, from the separation fence and expansion of settlements to harm done to Palestinians. The administration expects gestures like prisoner releases, evacuation of outposts and increased financial transfers from Israel to the Palestinians.

That's the atmosphere Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, is going into, for talks this week with the White House about Israel's comments on the road map. Ahead of the trip, the tactic was changed. Instead of presenting the Americans with a text thickly marked with dozens of erasures and additions, Weisglass will raise 14 "principles" or nays on issues Israel regards as essential.

"The goal is that there not be terror, and not that it's simply written terror is forbidden," explained one senior government source.

The prime minister is torn between his desire not to clash with the White House and the pressures from the right to tear up the road map. Mostly because of internal political pressures, he gave Weisglass the job of formulating Israel's comments on the plan. The veteran lawyer managed to harness the security-political establishment to a single document, which is an expression of profound distrust of the Palestinians and a desire to express an Israeli victory in the intifada.

"The discussions were conducted like a Yemenite Torah school," said one participant. "Everyone came with a copy of the road map, the representatives from IDF Planning read out a line and everyone made their comments."

The biggest land mine on the road is the demand that the Palestinians declare right at the start of the process that they are giving up the right of return. Ministers Tzipi Livni, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shalom led the campaign for that demand. They believe it's a concession that would justify the establishment of a Palestinian state before the final agreement.

The international community thinks otherwise. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said this week in Jerusalem that advancing the discussion of the right of return would make it "very difficult to proceed."

Sharon's office regards the right of return issue as a Netanyahu effort to blow up the process. Weisglass had reservations about adding elements of the permanent agreement, like settlements and refugees, to the interim stages of the road map. He regards a Palestinian state in provisional borders as a symbolic upgrade of the Palestinian Authority.

To counter those demanding it, he instructed Netanyahu's political adviser, Uzi Arad, to come up with appropriate wording. Arad proposed including a Palestinian declaration that opens an era of conciliation and calm with recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state." The sentence was included in the document of revisions, but the professional echelon had difficulty reaching an agreement and kicked the problem upstairs. So, at a meeting early this week, Sharon, under pressure from Shalom, added a more explicit reservation about the need for Palestinian concession of the right of return at the opening stage of the political process.

Now Jerusalem is waiting to see how the Americans behave. The administration made clear the road map will not be changed. Weisglass will try to get some understandings from the Americans about the Israeli reservations, to prevent pressure during implementation. But the real question is not what's written in the political plan, but whether Bush will change his spots and apply real pressure on Sharon, or continue as he has done so far, paying lip service alone.