With `understanding,' Bush, Sharon to meet

U.S., Israel sharing concerns, viewpoints

February 07, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Capitalizing on his adversary's missteps, Israel's hard-line prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has forged a relationship with the United States that rivals the one enjoyed by his dovish predecessor, Ehud Barak.

When he meets this afternoon for the fourth time with President Bush - who has refused to even shake hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - Sharon will be talking with a man who, to a large extent, shares his view of the threats facing Israel and American interests in the Middle East.

A year ago, few would have expected this aging warrior to win sympathy from a president who, on entering the White House, gave every indication of wanting to keep Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians at arm's length as he focused on a mostly domestic agenda.

Even after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, the White House and State Department avoided enlisting Israel in the war on terrorism as they sought to shore up support in the Arab and Muslim world for the U.S. campaign.

The tide began turning in Israel's favor with the United States' success in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan - a victory achieved without the widespread disturbances in the Middle East that some analysts had feared.

The victory over the Taliban coincided with rising American frustration over Arafat's refusal or inability to rein in a wave of terrorism and violence against Israelis.

Then came Israel's interception early this year of the Karine A, a ship dispatched from Iran laden with sophisticated weapons for Arafat's Palestinian Authority. To the Bush administration, the ship proved that the authority was seeking the means to escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even reaching out to a sworn enemy of the United States and the U.S.-brokered Middle East peace process.

"We've never been in a situation where there's been such clear frustration with the Palestinians," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who heads the Middle East Institute. "It's almost as if [Arafat] has a death wish."

As a result, the White House is not only offering a sympathetic ear, but is also starting to see the conflict more from Sharon's point of view. In his State of the Union address last week, Bush singled out for condemnation Israel's terrorist enemies: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. And two of the nations most hostile to Israel - Iran and Iraq - are in the troika Bush dubbed the "axis of evil."

"The United States and Israel share a common understanding of the threats to each and the threats they have in common," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Laura Bush conveyed the first couple's sympathy for the Israeli leader in a December television interview, recalling a conversation she and her husband had about a meeting with Sharon:

"We talked about Ariel Sharon, we talked about the situation that he faces as a leader when his people are terrorized. Just essentially the same situation we're facing in our country now," she said.

It may be too early to tell if this new bond will turn into the kind of active partnership that former President Clinton had with Barak. Both Clinton and Barak staked their prestige on a quest to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coordinating strategies through the failed Camp David summit in 2000.

Despite the summit's collapse, the United States continued quietly pushing for an agreement through the remainder of Clinton's term even as the Palestinian uprising exploded in September of that year.

A month before he left office, Clinton laid out a peace blueprint requiring major Israeli concessions regarding the occupied territories and the status of Jerusalem.

Barak's plummeting popularity and the mounting distrust between Israelis and Palestinians finally doomed Clinton's efforts. Sharon rode to power a year ago yesterday on a wave of Israeli anger and fear, vowing to restore security and put a final peace agreement on the back burner.

Rather than pick up where Clinton left off, the Bush team tried to contain the conflict, "to prevent the spread to regional war and regional instability," Martin Indyk, then ambassador to Israel, said in a speech last July.

Bush's new bond with Israel has the political advantage of coinciding with the views of Israel's many supporters on Capitol Hill. The perception of a close alliance also serves the administration's purpose of tightening pressure on Arafat to quell the violence directed at Israel and dismantle terrorist organizations.

Coordination between Bush and Sharon likely will increase if Bush mounts a serious drive to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iraq responded to U.S. airstrikes in 1991 by launching Scud missiles at Israel. With his survival at stake, Hussein might this time arm warheads with biological or chemical weapons, some fear.

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