Gamble Rides on Bush
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, April 11, 2005
A year ago this week
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington with a bold
agenda: to obtain the support of President Bush for a unilateral Israeli
solution to his country's conflict with the Palestinians. Abandoning a
decade of efforts at negotiations -- not to mention Bush's own "road map"
for a two-state solution -- Sharon aimed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip,
then impose a border of Israel's choosing in the West Bank, fortified
by walls and fences. Rather than seek accord with the Palestinians, whom
he knew would never accept his terms, Sharon sought to anchor his initiative
in a deal with Bush, whom he asked for an endorsement of Israel's eventual
annexation of West Bank territory and its determination never to accept
the return of Palestinian refugees. With diplomacy at an impasse and Yasser
Arafat still master of his long-suffering people, Bush signed on.
Since then a lot has
happened: Arafat died and was replaced by a democratically elected president
committed to ending violence and negotiating a settlement. Bloodshed between
Israelis and Palestinians ceased for the first time in Bush's presidency.
A reelected Bush solemnly recommitted himself to the road map and its
two-state negotiated settlement, which he said he wants to achieve by
the end of his second term. "The world must not rest," he declared in
February, "until there is a just and lasting resolution to this conflict."
Yet, as Sharon today
once again huddles with the president -- this time at his ranch in Crawford,
Tex. -- the unilateral solution he has pursued so relentlessly for the
past 12 months remains unchanged. If all proceeds as planned, he will
remove Israeli settlements from Gaza and one small part of the West Bank
by the end of this summer. He will complete construction of the West Bank
fence by the end of this year. Then, having effectively created a new
Israel that includes all of Jerusalem and at least 7 percent of the West
Bank, he will freeze the situation indefinitely. Palestinians will be
left with Gaza and several West Bank enclaves separated from each other
by Israeli roads and settlements; whether that is someday called a state
is a secondary concern for the Israeli prime minister.
Each time I describe
this ambitious project, I am challenged by American friends of Israel
who claim I don't understand how "Sharon has changed." Well, maybe not,
but I do pay attention to what the man says. Quite straightforwardly,
Sharon has more than once told Israeli interviewers that his whole purpose
is to avoid the likely result of a negotiated settlement -- that is, a
Palestinian state that would extend into Jerusalem and force Israel to
give up almost all of the West Bank. His closest aide, Dov Weissglas,
has been equally forthright. "The significance of our disengagement plan
is the freezing of the peace process," he told the newspaper Haaretz last
October. "It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political
process with Palestinians."
Bush and his team
understand very well what Sharon's goals are but choose not to notice
them -- except when the Israeli does or says something that can't be ignored,
such as his recent endorsement of a new Jewish settlement that would sever
Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank and thus fortify his fait accompli.
That's partly because of the president's long-standing reluctance to burn
political capital in a confrontation with an Israeli prime minister and
partly because Sharon's short-term objectives are worth supporting. If
he can overcome the Israeli resistance to withdrawal from Gaza, a formidable
undertaking he has so far handled skillfully, Sharon will achieve a genuine
breakthrough, one that conceivably could end up floating Bush's plan rather
than his own.
Shimon Peres, the
indefatigable Labor Party leader who recently joined Sharon's government,
spelled out this logic in a visit to The Post last week. "As significant
as prime ministers are they can't stop the winds of history," he said.
"If the withdrawal is completed it will create an entirely new situation,
and Sharon will have to confront that."
He will, that is,
if Bush presses him to do so, a condition Peres was too diplomatic to
spell out. If Bush is to have a legacy as a Middle East peacemaker, it
will be because he insists that Sharon's unilateral solution isn't good
enough -- that, as the president also said in February, a Palestinian
state "of scattered territories will not work." No such showdown is likely
this week: The Gaza withdrawal, after all, has not yet begun, and it's
still not clear whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will succeed
in creating an administration with which Israel can reasonably negotiate.
Still, after four years in which he has successfully dodged hard choices
in the Middle East, a moment of truth for Bush may be coming.
For now, the Israeli
prime minister can take satisfaction in the fact that the initiative he
persuaded the president to embrace a year ago remains on course, despite
its contradiction of the U.S. road map. Whether the same is true a year
from now depends more on Bush than on anyone else.
© 2005 The Washington