Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 34-35

Special Report

“Sharon Got It All” Headlined Israel’s Leading Daily, Haaretz

By Richard H. Curtiss

Political expediency overrode President George W. Bush’s principles during his recent White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the words of Washington Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius, “President Bush is on a roll in the Middle East...backward. His embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s positions on settlements and Palestinian refugees has needlessly squandered U.S. leverage in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations....That’s why six previous administrations had resisted taking the step Bush did on April 14 and endorsing one side’s positions in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.”

Editorialized The Washington Post on April 16: “Ariel Sharon left Washington yesterday with a landmark achievement in hand: For the first time, an American president has put the United States on record as supporting Israel’s eventual annexation of parts of the West Bank and as rejecting the return to its territory of Palestinian refugees. Whatever happens in the coming months—Mr. Sharon’s political future is uncertain, as is President Bush’s—those written commitments will reshape the diplomacy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of the United States in any future peace settlement.

“What did Mr. Bush receive in exchange for these historic pledges and for his willingness to absorb the inevitable backlash from an Arab Middle East already roiled by the U.S. mission in Iraq? Mr. Sharon made a series of promises, some of which he has made before and not fulfilled, and others that he may not be able to implement...

“Mr. Sharon, 76, meanwhile faces the threat of a possible indictment on criminal charges that could force him from office as soon as next month; if he goes, his successor may not support the planned withdrawal. The administration cannot control these events and the consequent risk of receiving no return on its historic concessions. But it should insist that Mr. Sharon quickly fulfill his renewed promises to dismantle settlement ”˜outposts’ and checkpoints in the West Bank, release frozen Palestinian funds and place a limit on future construction in settlements. Mr. Bush has tolerated the Israeli leader’s failure to carry out these measures for most of the past year.”

Headlined Israel’s Haaretz, “Sharon Got it All,” continuing, “The Palestinians were dealt a lethal blow.”

According to Corinne Whitlatch of Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 19 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox church offices, “President Bush has betrayed decades of diplomatic advances, undercut the future of the road map and ignored its co-sponsors—the U.N., the European Union and the Russian Federation. His repeated assurance that he wants a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is losing credibility. The president’s blatant disregard for Palestinian and Arab participation and sentiment places a future peace and our own security at risk.”

“The United States is rewarding Israel for negotiations that failed.”

Middle East specialists—whether Americans or not—said that Bush’s plan risks undermining U.S. goals in the region. Palestinian leaders were unanimously horrified and angered by Bush’s unprecedented support for Sharon’s goals.

Said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, “Bush is the first U.S. president to give legitimacy to Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Bush has gone further than any other American president in backing Israel and the most contentious issues—Jewish settlements, future borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”

Diana Butto, legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, noted, “What the United States is doing is rewarding Israel for negotiations that failed. Bush and Sharon each has political reasons for reaching an agreement, with a U.S. presidential election less than eight months away and Sharon’s Likud Party due to vote soon on his strategy of disengaging from the Palestinians.”

“Bush’s endorsement changes the balance of future negotiation and moves the line in favor of Israel,” said University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami. “This obviously is a violation of that long-standing American position that opens up a whole new debate.”

According to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and his aides, “The endorsement would end the chances of peace, security and stability in the area” and would “unleash the cycle of violence....Reaching such an accord means the complete end of the peace process.”

In the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Hindi of Islamic Jihad called Bush’s position “a slap in the face to everyone who was counting on a pure position from Washington.” The agreements would provoke an increase in violence, he predicted, because “they prove that resistance is the only choice that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

“Don’t count on negotiations to help you achieve your vital interests,’” concluded Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. “I don’t recall ever seeing an American position being so one-sided.”

Said Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza, “We expect the administration to play the role of an honest broker as the primary sponsor of the peace process, and now that has been set back.”

Former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, an architect of the recent Geneva Initiative, said, “I believe President Bush declared the death of the peace process today.”

In Syria, Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a professor of political sociology at Damascus University, called Bush’s statement “a bad declaration, especially at this time.”

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel and a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, stated,“Unilateral steps cannot be substituted for international solutions.”

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference following the first Gulf war, noted, “For the first time, American policy violates the basic conditions for peace.”

PLO legal adviser Michael Tarazi recommended that, given the Bush-Sharon lovefest, “Americans should stop wondering why they have so little credibility in the Middle East.”

Only days before his assassination—to which many feel the White House gave at least a tacit green light—Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said, “It’s part of the American-declared war against Islam.”

That Bush’s move was good politics was evidenced by Democratic rival John F. Kerry’s quick move to prevent Bush from outflanking him among pro-Israel voters. “What’s important obviously is the security of the state of Israel,” Kerry gushed, “and that’s what the prime minister and the president, I think, are trying to address.”

Observed U.S. pollster John Zogby, “This is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the peace process as far as Arabs are concerned.” He said his polling indicates the Palestinian cause is among the top three issues for 90 percent of Arabs in all Arab countries he has surveyed.

The Washington Post’s Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson predicted that “the Sharon plan will spur an upsurge of violence by Palestinians who see no other alternative to resolve the conflict.”

According to Yuval Steinitz of Israel’s Likud Party, however, “The right of return was Mr. Sharon’s most significant achievement.”

Nathan Diament, a lobbyist for the Orthodox Jewish movement, said he believes “Bush’s motive is principle rather than politics...the courting of Jewish donors—hugely important to Democrats—could aid the Republican Party.”

That point was echoed by House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric I. Cantor of Virginia, the House’s only Jewish Republican. “American Jews see that President Bush gets the fact that Israel is fighting the same fight against terrorism that we are,” Cantor said. “The very liberal Jews are not going to put aside their environmental or abortion politics. But for the mainstream Jewish community, Israel is of paramount importance. Many Jews, of course, vote on issues other than Israel, and many distrust Sharon. That means Bush’s inroads among Jewish voters may be limited.”

Wrote Dana Milbank and Mike Allen of The Washington Post: “The move could enable Bush to chip away a few more of the Jewish voters—who have traditionally been loyal to Democrats. And in a tight election, the small minority of Jewish voters—who tend to have strong turnout levels—could give Bush an edge in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Bush’s strategists believe that even small inroads into the Jewish vote could mean the difference between winning and losing Florida, and several Republicans believe the announcement could further inhibit Kerry’s fund-raising in the Jewish community.”

Milbank and Allen quote an unnamed official as saying: “We lost the Jewish vote when ”˜The Passion’ came out. That part of the Jewish community that is concerned about public expression of religiosity gets spooked, because high-profile Republicans were hugging ”˜The Passion.’”

The Post reporters continued, “But with Arab-American voters already strongly against Bush, strategists see little political downside for Bush in Wednesday’s action, even if he does not win large numbers of Jewish votes.”

Former Clinton Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, now director of the AIPAC-spinoff Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called “Sharon’s withdrawal ”˜revolutionary.’” Bush’s endorsement is less than Sharon sought, Ross maintained, but more than many in the U.S. administration had originally wanted to give.

Likud leader Benny Kashriel, who had opposed the withdrawal plan, said that, following Sharon’s political victory in Washington, he is considering changing his position. He said he now expects Sharon to win a party referendum on the plan set for May 2.

In a television appearance, Tourism Minister Benny Eilon, of the National Union party, called on Likud members to “remain faithful to the land of Israel” and oppose Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, saw the Bush endorsement in a larger context. “I’m suggesting that we ought to have a different strategy,” he said. “I think that [Israel-Palestine] issue is now conflated with Iraq. I think we will not be able to disengage unless we have progress on that issue and unless the U.N. and our allies are engaged in both issues, and they’re not going to be engaged unless they have a share in the decision making.”

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Magazine.