April 3, 2002


Faith, Trust and War Place Bush Firmly on Israel's Side


WASHINGTON -- At their first White House meeting, months before Sept. 11, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forged a personal bond based on their shared antipathy toward terrorism.

Mr. Sharon told the president in March 2001 that he would have to "remove from our society" Palestinian radicals involved in terrorist attacks, according to a person who was in the room. The Israeli leader also promised he would try to do what was necessary without causing regional instability. Mr. Bush signaled his understanding, telling the Israeli leader, "You don't need to elaborate."

Mr. Bush's unwavering support for Mr. Sharon, as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians threatens to spiral out of control, stands in sharp contrast to the bitter relations his father had with another conservative Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. While the first President Bush saw the equally confrontational Mr. Shamir as an obstacle to Middle East peace after the Gulf War, his son sees Mr. Sharon as a kindred spirit in the war against terrorism.

There are other differences, as well. Mr. Bush is bound to Israel by a strong religious faith molded by his convictions as a born-again Christian. In his autobiography, he describes a 1998 visit there as "an incredible experience." And times have changed markedly since the first President Bush's term, when many moderate Arab governments were expressing an eagerness for peace.

"This President Bush sees the war against terrorism and the terrorist attacks on Israel as closely linked," says Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state in the first Bush administration. While moderate Arab leaders and many European allies are demanding Mr. Bush do more to halt an Israeli offensive on Palestinian territories, Mr. Bush so far has resisted.

The situation there continues to worsen. The Israeli army said Tuesday night that it had sent tanks into the towns of Salfit and Jenin, expanding a military campaign aimed at rooting out potential suicide bombers, and gunfire was reported to have been exchanged at both sites. In the fifth day of the Israeli offensive in the West Bank, at least 13 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed. No updated casualty reports were released after Tuesday's two new offensives by Israel. On Tuesday, the State Department said dependents of American employees at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem were being offered free airfare to return to the U.S. Family members of American personnel in Tel Aviv, where the U.S. maintains its embassy, aren't being encouraged to go home, an American official said.

On Tuesday Mr. Sharon said he had proposed that European officials arrange to fly Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into exile from his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank, where he has been a virtual prisoner since late last week. Mr. Arafat refused, and U.S. officials declined to endorse the idea. Meanwhile, most of the 400 Palestinians holed up in the compound of West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub surrendered to Israeli troops, in a deal brokered by U.S. and European officials, according to wire-service reports. And an Israeli Army spokesman said about 700 Palestinian suspects have been detained since Friday.

Despite strong outside pressures -- and some top aides' concern that he is too closely aligning the U.S. with Mr. Sharon -- Mr. Bush has shown none of the anger or frustration his father aimed at former Prime Minister Shamir. Beginning in 1991, U.S.-Israeli relations heated to a boiling point when former President Bush blocked $10 billion of loan guarantees meant to aid Soviet Jews moving to Israel. Mr. Bush was furious because he believed the Israeli prime minister was violating his pledge to stop expanding settlements in the territories. And when American Jews criticized his stand, Mr. Bush publicly complained that he was "one lonely little guy" up against the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

For this President Bush, that feeling of personal betrayal instead is focused completely on Mr. Arafat. Earlier this year, the Palestinian leader infuriated Mr. Bush when he denied any knowledge of or involvement with a clandestine arms shipment to the Palestinian Authority from Iran, which was intercepted by the Israelis. U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials believe Mr. Arafat approved the shipment, and aides say Mr. Bush has never forgiven him for denying his involvement.

Mr. Sharon, on the other hand, seems to have an intuitive grasp of Mr. Bush's patience. In October, Mr. Sharon warned Washington not to "appease the Arabs at our expense" in the way Europeans appeased Hitler in the 1930s. The White House rebuked Mr. Sharon, and he quickly apologized for the remark. And when the U.S. expressed concern about an earlier incursion into Palestinian areas by the Israeli army, Mr. Sharon withdrew his forces. It isn't clear how Mr. Sharon would react now if President Bush demanded a halt to the current offensive.

Unlike his father's vast diplomatic and government experience, the current president's philosophy toward Israel is based largely on personal experience, and his relationships -- and grudges -- now are helping to shape his administration's policies.

A defining moment for Mr. Bush came in 1998, when he traveled to Israel to learn about the region firsthand and had his initial encounter with Mr. Sharon, who at the time was Israel's foreign minister and gave Mr. Bush a helicopter tour of the tiny nation. According to people on the trip and those who spoke with the president afterward, the two men hit it off immediately.

Later, addressing a meeting in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group, Mr. Bush joked about Israel's narrow borders -- the source of its vulnerability. "In Texas, some of our driveways are longer than that," he said.

For Mr. Bush, whose foreign-affairs experience until then was limited to dealing with Mexico as Texas governor, the trip also gave him new confidence in his ability to interact with world leaders, says Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was on the trip.

Although that visit now is becoming part of presidential lore, it was marred by one incident. And Mr. Bush brought that home with him, too.

At the time, Mr. Bush's presidential ambitions were being hotly debated in political and media circles. His trip was quickly dubbed -- accurately at some level -- as an attempt to create some foreign-affairs credentials and prepare him for his emergence as a national candidate. The organizers had tried to arrange a meeting with Mr. Arafat or other Palestinian leaders, but they repeatedly were rebuffed with claims of scheduling conflicts. But when Mr. Bush and his entourage landed, the soon-to-be presidential candidate was confronted by local reporters demanding an explanation of why he was ignoring the Palestinians and, in particular, Mr. Arafat. The trip organizers tried to shoot down the implications of the questions, but it was a bitter moment.

Since becoming president, Mr. Bush has made a point of not inviting Mr. Arafat to the White House. The president also shunned attempts by foreign allies to arrange an informal handshake between the two men on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly last year.

-- David S. Cloud contributed to this article.

Write to Robert S. Greenberger at bob.greenberger@wsj.com and Jeanne Cummings at jeanne.cummings@wsj.com

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