Sudden Discord between Bush and Sharon

Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon was warned many a time to beware of placing all his major policy eggs in the George W. Bush basket. But from the time he first took office more than three years ago, he never wavered from his bond with the US president. Their friendship was often cited as one of Sharon’s prime assets. And until last week, the Bush administration stood behind the prime minister and heartily endorsed his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in stages ending in September 2005.
But then the wind blowing in from Washington suddenly turned chill.
In the last week, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the White House suddenly spun its sympathies around from Ariel Sharon and his disengagement plan to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Fatah frontrunner in the Palestinian January 9 election, and his sweeping demands for territorial concessions.
The prime minister’s office in Jerusalem has not acknowledged that a main prop has been knocked out from under his most fundamental policy positions. But it was suggested in Sharon’s “2005 -year of big opportunities” speech Thursday night, December 17, in Herzliya. He declared in ringing tones that recalled the way he laid down the law to Likud rebels: Disengagement will take place and it will proceed according to the format and time scale I laid down!
debkafile‘s Washington sources outline the new state of play.
Our sources in Washington believe that the determining factor in the US president’s turnabout was the message from Abbas that he will be in a position to announce a comprehensive ceasefire on or around January 1. He promises to bring all the Palestinian organizations including the radical Hamas and Jihad Islami into the truce.
Bush decided that if Abu Mazen can pull this off, his demands deserve close attention.
They are, first, that Israel hold up its plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank by September 2005 and set a new timeline. Its execution must also be swift, no more than a few weeks. He thus rejects Sharon’s hard-and-fast timetable on which Israel’s security chiefs have based their 2005 planning.
The Bush administration may have bought another key Palestinian demand: Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank must be a lot deeper than the line marking off the northern tip with the four settlements that Sharon proposes to evacuate. That pullback too, according to the new US thinking, must take place in the space of weeks rather than the six months allotted by the Sharon government.
These demands are not the sum total of Abu Mazen’s shopping list -just starters. But if confirmed by Washington, they will require Sharon to scrap his four key policy objectives.
1. The disengagement strategy born at the peak of Yasser Arafat’s campaign of terror as a unilateral exercise will be laid on a future negotiating table and subjected to tough Palestinian bargaining every inch off the way. Since last week, Washington looks like lining up behind Palestinian demands rather than Israel.
2. The proposition that the withdrawal from Gaza and northern West Bank will be Israeli’s last territorial concessions to the Palestinians, presented to the Israeli public as the crowning achievement of the Sharon-Bush friendship, will go by the board.
On April 14, President Bush received Sharon at the White House and endorsed his disengagement plan. (“I commend Prime Minister Sharon for his bold and courageous decision to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank” – as did British premier Tony Blair later).
The US president also said “in the light of new realities on the ground, including existing major population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a complete and full return to 1949 armistice lines.”
3. Washington has said often that terrorism must stop as a prerequisite for political progress. But how serious is this assertion? Since last month, the Americans and Iraqi prime minister Iyad Awali have been in and out of Amman for secret meetings under Jordanian King Abdullah’s aegis to coax Iraqi Sunni leaders and Saddam loyalists to take part in Iraq’s new democratic enterprise. Some of the Iraqi interlocutors lead guerrilla operations against US forces in Iraq – either from inside the country or from outside bases, mainly in Syria. If Washington is willing to engage Iraqi terrorist leaders, why not open an indirect channel to Palestinian terror organizations too?
4. In his “Big Opportunities for 2005” speech Thursday, Sharon presented his Gaza pullback plan as the road to cure-alls for Israel’s economic woes, to new markets and to solutions for the extreme social and economic disparities between Israel’s rich and poor.
debkafile‘s Washington sources note that, while the Bush administration never promised US aid for the payout to evicted settlers or the Israeli army’s redeployment in the Negev, it was understood that Washington would be helpful to Israel on international and financial markets.
That too is in doubt.
The Bush administration is now focusing fully on raising $6-8 billion dollars from its own resources and those of other nations, including the Europeans, for Palestinian reconstruction and recovery projects over the next five years. Israel will not only miss out on funding for its peace efforts but its taxpayers will be asked to contribute to the Palestinians.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak has picked up the new winds blowing from Washington, for, speaking after Sharon, he called for the urgent completion of the defense barrier. Because of delays in its construction, he said: “…Israel may have already lost Ariel and he is not sure that Maaleh Adumim is not lost too and Gush Etzion at risk.”
Barak was nudging the prime minister to stop bandying words with the White House and instead to create facts on the ground without delay.
Sharon is therefore in for some hard shoves to adapt to the Palestinian scenario. He is still clinging to his plan with all his strength. In his Herzliya speech, he noted bitterly: I cannot accept changes of plan after all my struggles, sacrifices and battles.
A month ago, he could have escaped the pressure by dissolving his minority government and calling an early election. But that door is closing fast. In the next few days a coalition agreement which he initiated is due to be signed for attaching dovish Labor and Oslo Accord architect Shimon Peres to his government. Sharon is careening very fast into a fix undreamt of two weeks ago; he is about to be dragged by the White House and pushed by his Labor partner away from his cherished disengagement plan and forced to kowtow to a US-backed Palestinian agenda.

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