Sharon pulls an unpleasant surprise on U.S.

Invasion of Ramallah damages relationship formed with Washington

March 15, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With a military offensive that some liken to his invasion of Lebanon 20 years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel crossed a red line with the United States this week, drawing an unusual rebuke from President Bush and undermining a relationship that Sharon had carefully cultivated.

Because of its timing and the number of Palestinian casualties it produced, Israel's onslaught upon the West Bank town of Ramallah on Monday, with scores of tanks and thousands of troops, created a thicket of diplomatic problems for the United States.

Sharon has pledged not to present the United States with unpleasant surprises. But that's exactly what happened this week, according to U.S. officials.

After Bush decided hastily to send Anthony C. Zinni back to the region to try brokering a cease-fire, the Israeli army mounted its biggest military operation in the West Bank and Gaza since it captured the territories during the Six Day War of 1967.

The operation fueled suspicion among Palestinians that the United States gave Israel a "green light" to complete the incursions into refugee camps and roundups of young men that had begun this month. The Bush administration denies this. But the suspicions are bound to cloud the Zinni mission and make his job of trying to be a neutral broker tougher.

"We sent Kurtzer and Schlicher to both sides to underscore that this was not a green light and to say, `We expect you to be taking steps to be making Zinni's job easier,' " a U.S. official said, referring to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, and the consul general in Jerusalem, Ronald Schlicher.

The Israeli offensive produced another problem. It came just as Vice President Dick Cheney was beginning an 11-nation Middle East tour with the delicate mission of explaining why President Bush is determined to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

Many in the Arab world say that Sharon poses a more perilous threat to regional stability than does the Iraqi dictator, despite memories of Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

A day after Bush declared that Israel's actions were "not helpful," the administration kept up pressure on Sharon yesterday, calling for Israel to pull all its forces from areas that are supposed to be under full Palestinian control.

Since Bush launched the war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks, Sharon has worked to build on the two nations' shared vulnerability to terror to form a close bond with the American president.

In recent months, his effort seemed to work. The White House, echoing demands by Sharon, abandoned balanced attempts to forge a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians and heaped pressure on Yasser Arafat to crack down on Palestinian terrorists.

In a show of support Dec. 2, Bush cut short a weekend at Camp David to commiserate with Sharon at the White House after Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa killed 27 Israelis.

Israeli officials say Bush and Sharon reached an understanding that Israel would not try to remove or kill Arafat or destroy the Palestinian Authority.

The tensions between the United States and Israel recall 1982, when Sharon, as Israel's defense minister, launched an invasion of Lebanon that went beyond what American officials, or Israel's prime minister, had been led to expect, according to several historical accounts. Israeli troops moved into Beirut in a campaign to drive Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country, inflicting heavy civilian casualties.

Israeli observers have noted similarities between the two operations: "Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is orchestrating these operations in a manner reminiscent of his past during the siege of Beirut," the liberal newspaper Haaretz said this week.

The Israeli offensive undercut a Cheney diplomatic mission that Israel has every reason to want to succeed. The administration has adopted a stance close to Israel's on strategic threats to the region. Iran and Iraq, two of the three nations that Bush dubbed an "axis of evil," are seen by Israel as threats to its existence, and Sharon's government backs Bush's intention to confront Hussein. But the Israeli prime minister's desire to align himself with Bush clashed with domestic political pressures to achieve a military solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

"Sharon made a strategic effort to work closely with the Americans and keep them informed of Israeli concerns and try to align policy in a way that would take the U.S. into consideration," said Jess Hordes, who heads the Washington office of the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League. "That continues to be a primary objective."

But, Hordes said, Sharon faced "significant domestic pressure to find an answer for the terrorism that is affecting every Israeli."

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, says that parallels with 1982 are overdrawn. But Sharon did learn a powerful lesson from his bitter experience in that war, which led to his being ousted as defense minister and tagged with indirect responsibility for massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut.

"Sharon has conscientiously applied a lesson from Lebanon: Keep a broad consensus," Alpher said. "When he sees he is losing the consensus, he backs off."

This has happened in recent days, with his governing coalition fracturing and criticism coming from Washington, Alpher said. Sharon's response was to begin pulling troops out of Ramallah.

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