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Politics Of New Bush-Sharon Pact

President George W. Bush and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took new steps this week that could significantly impact Bush administration policies in the Middle East. Not only will they affect any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, they also will make it harder to press some of the western and democratic-type reforms Mr. Bush has been urging on moderate Arab leaders in the region.

Following months of negotiations between senior officials in Jerusalem and Washington, Mr. Bush gave Sharon U.S. backing for much of what the Israeli leader sought on fundamental issues like security, settlements and refugees.

In a White House press conference, the President backed the Prime Minister's plan to withdraw all Israeli settlers from Gaza (7,500 settlers in 20 settlements) and to uproot a few illegal outposts on the West Bank (500 settlers in 4 locations).

Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan has caused him to come under pressure from the settler movement which has been a key part of his political base. Now, armed with Washington's backing for the plan, Sharon has greatly increased his chances of getting his Likud party's backing in a vote scheduled for early next month.

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Adding to the support Sharon received for the Gaza settlement withdrawal, Bush also sent a strong and very public signal backing Israeli positions on other key issues.

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers ( i.e. large settlement blocs on the West Bank ), it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949….," said Mr. Bush. In addition to indicating Washington's backing for an adjustment in the eventual border between Israel and an envisioned Palestinian state, it also sends a positive sign supporting the route of the security barrier (aka fence, wall) which Israeli is now building to separate itself from its Palestinian neighbors.

Furthermore, on the emotionally-charged issue regarding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they were in before Israel gained statehood, Mr. Bush again took the Israeli position, saying any final agreement "…will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

Now, all this makes for what one observer called a "love in" between the American and Israeli leaders. What's missing from the picture? Just one of the parties in the dispute, that's all.

Except for some consultations with Palestinian leaders in recent months, these moves have been worked out between the Bush administration and Mr. Sharon. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at the White House a few days after Sharon, backed Mr. Bush, saying, "This is not a unilateral attempt to impose a settlement." That may be the case in the in the minds of Bush administration officials and, perhaps, the Israeli Prime Minister, but the Palestinians can be forgiven for thinking Washington has abandoned all pretense to being a neutral mediator.

Ed Abington, a retired American diplomat who once was Consul General in Jerusalem and who now works on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in Washington, said: "Bush has abandoned 35 years of U.S. Middle East policy. He's adopted the Israeli policy on refugees and borders. He's fundamentally aligned the U.S. policy with Israel's position."

It is true that Mr. Bush and White House officials who briefed reporters insisted the so-called "road map" remains the way forward for a political settlement and also that all final status issues still must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. Another point to be acknowledged is much of what was said in public this week has been talked about in previous negotiations behind closed doors as eventually becoming the likely result of a final, negotiated settlement.

The White House view -- and Israel's as well -- is that "this is a historic opportunity" for the Palestinians, as Mr. Bush put it. "The Palestinian leadership must rise to the challenge." Unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, planned to take place next year, will force Palestinian leaders to assume control over the daily lives of more than a million of their people.

That's well and good, but in the real world of politics and diplomacy it doesn't change the perception that the Bush administration's public backing of Israeli positions on key issues tilts Washington out of a neutral position.

On a related front -- the administration's continuing efforts to bring democracy to the Arab world -- it is almost impossible to see how publicly supporting Israel's positions can work to Washington's benefit.

Edward Walker, President of the Middle East Institute, and a former ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, says "the overall view of this president is going to take another hit in the region … and it will be far harder for leaders to support him and will want to make them put distance between themselves and Bush on democracy reforms and other issues."

The only plausible answer to Mr. Bush's actions is more likely to be found in the political rather than the diplomatic calculations that support them. The political benefits to Sharon are obvious and were needed now. But there are similar benefits for the Bush White House too. Any support the president can pick up from America's Jewish voters who care about Israel's future will come at Senator John Kerry's expense and, at the same time, Mr. Bush solidifies his strength with conservative Christians who also strongly support Israel.

On balance, what we saw this week was a mixture of politics and policy, with politics carrying the day. It remains to be seen whether the policy implications so forcefully emphasized by the White House will eventually bear fruit. As for understanding the Bush-Sharon meeting, one knowledgeable analyst summed it up by saying "friends in need are friends indeed."

By Charles Wolfson

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