By Jim Hoagland
If President Bush's hour with Ariel Sharon on Tuesday resembled the hour I had, the White House must be rapidly scaling back its hopes for serious peace talks in the near future between Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Israeli prime minister has seized the reins of history and intends to drive events in his direction, giving nothing important away to friend or foe.
The striking thing about Sharon on Tuesday was the display of a new talent that the old warrior has acquired: He can now dance with the diplomats. He has come up with a reasonable set of demands that he presented to Bush as "Israel's peace plan."
Sharon has taken the latest buzz in the Bush administration and European governments -- "reforming" the Palestinian Authority out from under Arafat -- and converted it into a precondition for serious peace talks. Only when Arafat has been turned into "a symbolic leader whose hold on the levers of power will gradually diminish" will there be any point in peace negotiations, Sharon said.
He disclosed that Israel had sounded out Egypt and Jordan on the idea of pushing Palestinian reform as an urgent item and thought they were generally in agreement. How could they not be? They and Saudi Arabia have already promised Bush they will pressure the Palestinians into halting terror and reforming Arafat's misrule.
There is an element of clever maneuvering (and even a little chutzpah) in Sharon's vision of relegating Arafat to the status of a discredited queen of England. The Israeli is in essence arguing with Secretary of State Colin Powell about "sequencing" -- about what it takes to start the peace talks the Arabs demand as their precondition to get Arafat to fight terror and to stop stealing his people blind. (That's the thing about volunteering to be Arafat's lawyer and parole officer: You'll never be out of work.)
But Sharon's words shift momentum in Middle East peace-processing. While keeping his tanks poised to go anywhere in the West Bank at any time they are needed to prevent new terror attacks -- as he explicitly stated in our talk -- he is taking the initiative in diplomacy as well.
He noted that Powell had taken up his suggestion of a regional "meeting" this summer. Sharon now proposes that those talks should be devoted to "the United States, Europe and Russia putting pressure for reform" on the Palestinians. The triumvirate of outside powers should "immediately" reshape (and pay for) new institutions that would report to a new "Palestinian prime minister" with whom Israel could deal. Aid should be conditioned on agreement to this plan.
In any event, the talks this summer will be about "creating the right climate of dialogue and negotiations." Sharon quickly continued: "This is not the place to negotiate. Political negotiations will be conducted directly between the two parties," i.e., Israel and Palestine, but only when violence has stopped.
For a man who had been through a potentially contentious meeting with Bush -- for the record, Sharon denied that it had been that -- and received word of a new suicide bombing in Israel only a few hours before, Sharon was surprisingly even-tempered during his conversation with me and fellow columnists Jackson Diehl of The Post and William Safire of the New York Times.
Sharon indicated that he had deflected efforts by Bush to talk about a freeze on settlements and final status negotiations. He dismissed both as "premature." Moreover, he made a point of saying to us that Israel would not accept any final settlement based on "the Clinton plan, the Taba discussions . . . the 1967 borders" or a right of return for Palestinian refugees: "I made these points very clear" to the president.
Instead of declaring Arafat to be irrelevant, Sharon works to make him irrelevant. He is aided in this by the credible reports that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah proposed a division of labor to Bush: The Saudis would help ease Arafat out of power if Bush delivered Sharon to real peace talks.
But Sharon credibly reported that he had faced no pressure from the American leader. The president "agreed with my view that reform is the most important thing. This is a temporary moment, and we could lose it." He added that he had not discussed with Bush a timetable for accomplishing reform and starting talks.
Another timetable was very much on his mind, however. "I am going to be prime minister at least until Oct. 28, 2003. And so I won't surprise you later, I'll say now: I'm going to run for a new term then." The words "and win" hung unspoken in the air.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company