Bush and Powell Pull Red Carpet Assurances from under Sharon

Just four days before Likud party members vote on Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, President George W. Bush looks like backtracking on some of the key words contained in his statement and letter that so elated the Israeli prime minister after their talks in Washington on April 14. He is preparing a second letter aimed at pleasing Jordan’s king Abdullah just as much when he arrives for his rescheduled White House talks on May 6.
Sharon has been triumphantly waving the presidential statement which asserted it would be unrealistic to expect Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines and noted that Palestinian refugees must be settled in a Palestinian state rather than Israel. Sharon’s advisers and spokesmen have presented these assertions as fully endorsing Israeli settlement blocs outside the Gaza Strip and also praising the Gaza Strip withdrawal as a bold, unprecedented move by any former Israeli prime minister.
However, the presidential letter to Abdullah under consideration now will state that both these intractable issues must be settled in direct negotiations between the parties.
The fact that it is under preparation was released in Washington on April 27 ahead of the Likud poll – even though Abdullah arrives four days after it is over. Word of an “Abdullah amendment” to the Sharon letter therefore lands with a damp thump on the fervid drive Sharon’s campaigners have been waging to drum up a majority for his go-it-alone-for-lack-of-a negotiating partner initiative. It belies the argument that defeat of the Sharon plan would offend the US president.
Secretary of state Colin Powell echoed the president’s “thoughts” on an Abdullah letter a few hours later.
In a flash, the so-called historical pledges Sharon won in Washington evaporated.
It wasn’t the first time Powell injected a sobering dose of reality into what Sharon and his aides had hailed as a triumph of Israeli will over US reluctance to change decades of policy. Powell said exactly the same thing just hours after Sharon and his entourage left Washington. At the time, various Israeli cabinet ministers, in comments dictated by Sharon’s aides, commented that the White House, not Powell, set US policy.
How wrong they were.
debkafile‘s argument on April 14 that Bush had set a “1949 trap” for Sharon was likewise pooh-poohed by some readers as our failure to grasp the cleverness of Sharon’s maneuver. It may now turn out that to spring the trap Bush has only to insert the same phrase in Abdullah’s letter.
Sharon has greeted the assurances he received from the US president as “the toughest blow dealt to the Palestinians since 1948.” This followed a declaration that he was no longer bound by his three-year old promise to Bush not to physically harm Yasser Arafat – a declaration quickly and furiously rejected by the White House. Sharon’s loudest cabinet cheerleader, vice premier Ehud Olmert, continues to trumpet: “I don’t know of any other Israeli prime minister who has ever made such historical gains in a White House encounter. The president of the United States has recognized Israeli settlement blocs and rejected the Palestinians’ ‘right of return’.”
By going over the top, their campaign to win reluctant Likud members round to supporting the Sharon plan threatens to backfire at home and in the international arena.
On Tuesday, Israel’s Independence Day, around 100,000 opponents from around the country streamed to the Gaza Strip’s main settlement bloc at Gush Katif to show their solidarity with the settlers – despite daily attacks by Palestinians.
The wild boasts coming from Sharon and Olmert have infuriated the Arab and Muslim world and evoked a chorus of indignation in many parts of Europe, playing into the hands of every anti-Israel element. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has said Arab hatred of America has never been greater. All these voices decry what they regard as the Bush administration’s biased, pro-Israeli tilt. Arab allies like Jordan’s Abdullah cannot afford to be seen associating himself with this alleged bias, however misrepresented.
Bush has had no choice but to publicly change course and repudiate – or at least counterbalance – his assurances to Sharon. He needs international sympathy more than ever in the face of the mounting trouble in Iraq and al Qaeda’s fast-moving offensive. US forces besieging the Sunni hotbed of Fallujah since April 5 are still bogged down in battles for the city; they have also yet to come to grips with the uprising mounted by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army. The upsurge of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks across the Middle East is chipping away at US credibility in the Muslim world and nourishing Bush’s critics at home and abroad in a presidential election year.
The last thing Bush needs right now is for Sharon to “triumph” again in the Likud referendum and for his disengagement plan to race forward unchecked. The president has therefore abruptly switched the spotlight round from the Israel prime minister’s office to the White House and made a determined effort to redefine his Middle East stance.

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