The New Comeback Kid

After years on the outside, Sharon shines brightly in Bush's Washington.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

May 5 2002

WASHINGTON -- WASHINGTON -- For many years after his forced resignation as defense minister for his role in the massacre of Palestinians at the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Ariel Sharon was persona non grata in the halls of American power. He and the first President Bush's secretary of State, James A. Baker III, shared a particular antagonism. Even as Baker urged Israel to "give up the dream of a 'Greater Israel,'" Sharon, then minister of housing and construction in the government of Yitzhak Shamir, instigated and supervised the construction of additional Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Sharon's rehabilitation in Washington began with his appointment as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign minister. In November 1997, he met with President Clinton's national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, at the White House. With his ubiquitous maps in tow, Sharon acknowledged that a Palestinian state was inevitable and tried to win the Clinton administration to his plan for such a state in approximately half of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli daily Haaretz, quoting "a senior Clinton administration official," reported Nov. 28, 1997, that Berger was "impressed by the meeting. Sharon appeared pragmatic and moderate." Sharon's star, however, has never shone more brightly than it does in George W. Bush's Washington in the spring of 2002. Along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sharon is one of the U.S. president's most ardent proponents of the war on terrorism and the associated antipathy toward the "axis of evil" residing in Baghdad, Tehran and Pyongyang.

Recollection of the problems that Sharon has created for Washington over the years is absent from both the institutional and personal memories of those who rule, and those who advise them. Bush has given every indication that he is content to see Sharon mold the agenda of the post-Oslo era according to his preferences, just as Clinton deferred to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's vision at Oslo in 1993. Even after Sharon deployed 75,000 soldiers in the West Bank, an action resulting in unprecedented ruin there, the utterly improbable word from Bush was: "I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace."

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, in contrast, long ago exhausted what little goodwill remained toward him in the U.S. capital. Arafat "never earned my trust," Bush declared April 6, "because he hasn't performed." Arafat's irredeemable predicament in Washington goes far deeper than a simple failure to accommodate Bush's preferences.

Notwithstanding the Bush administration's efforts to free him from his virtual imprisonment in Ramallah, Arafat is still an object of the kind of reflexive derision reserved only for leaders considered political pariahs. The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner is neither respected nor feared. Discussion centers on his well-deserved political demise, not through the ballot box--where he remains more popular than ever--but by American or Israeli fiat, because he is no longer able to contribute to the "peace process."

Arafat suffers from his association with the Oslo peace process, which the leading defense and strategic thinkers in the Bush administration have long derided because of their opposition to Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. As the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House, Arafat is further compromised by his association with what the Bush people regard as Clinton's squandering of the powers of the presidency in his unsuccessful pursuit of an Israeli-Arab peace. Even as they excoriate the Oslo process for its tilt against Israel, they view Arafat's refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's "generous offer" during the July 2000-January 2001 period as indicative of the diplomatic dead end that any negotiation with him promises.

On the grander strategic horizon now dominated by the war on terrorism and the impending rematch against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians, and to a greater degree than ever the Arab world as a whole, have at best a minor, supporting role to play. Among those Bush administration officials who matter, Arafat and his cohorts could never be "partners" on a par with their Israeli antagonists in this campaign.

At best, Arafat, faced with the stark choice of joining or opposing Washington, must be neutralized as a contributor to regional instability, in the Palestinian territories and throughout the region. At worst, Washington might conclude, as Sharon has, that Arafat and the institutions he represents are beyond redemption and therefore dispensable. The Bush administration came close to such a decision in January 2002, after Israel's interception of an arms-laden ship established a connection between the Palestinian leadership and Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's visit to the region in early April was viewed by an audience as diverse as former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and the clutch of young advisors around Arafat as America giving Arafat a last chance to accommodate the president's demand to condemn terror.

When Bush strategists look at a map of the Middle East today, their eyes are drawn to the Persian Gulf. Only reluctantly can they be compelled to focus on the Palestinian area and its interminably warring parties, not because they have any hopes for rapprochement between Sharon and Arafat but because of their concern that the violence between Israel and the Palestinians will spill over and engage Iraq and Jordan as well as Syria and Lebanon.

For the administration, even as it plans an international peace conference, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a black hole of frustrated expectations. Indeed, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is viewed by many in the Bush administration as a distraction, a strategic sideshow to the main event that will determine the region's future: the fall of Hussein. They are more than happy to dump this time-consuming, exhausting and thankless portfolio into the lap of a reluctant Powell, who on Afghanistan and Iraq has been a voice of relative moderation, while they attend to the successful application of U.S. military power around the globe.

Powell appears to understand the stakes of the contest Israel is waging with the Palestinians. He has steered the Bush administration in the direction of acknowledging the advantages of Palestinian independence, one decade after the first Bush administration promised, in its "letters of assurance" to the government of Yitzhak Shamir, that it opposed the creation of such a state.

Yet Powell is contending with two aged leaders who detest each other, who are merciless in pursuit of their objectives and who are determined to squeeze every centimeter of advantage out of their antagonists. He is trapped not only by the deference Sharon enjoys in Washington but also by the Israeli view that the partnership with Arafat, sealed at Oslo, is at an end.

And if this were not enough, Powell must also deal with a commander in chief and a domestic political culture whose most authentic sentiments favor Sharon's war against Arafat.

The administration's benevolent attitude toward the Sharon government has been extraordinary even when measured against the history of close cooperation and friendship between the U.S. and Israel. Over the last year it has watched with detached interest as Sharon dismantled the basic foundations of the Oslo process--in which the U.S. is involved as a signatory and key benefactor.

The concern prompting Powell's sudden departure to the region in April was not Israel's destruction of the Palestinian Authority, which the U.S. had long observed with relative magnanimity, but the threat that Sharon's assault would trigger regional deterioration.

"Within two or three days after [the Israeli] incursions began," explained Powell on April 9, "the [U.S.] embassies started making us aware of how this was affecting the street and how it was affecting the leaders in the region.

"We saw things that we had never, ever expected to see--the car burnings in Bahrain, half a million people [rallying] in Morocco, demonstrations in Egypt. Again, today, there were demonstrations. These things cause us concern [because] this was no longer just a clash between two parties in the occupied territories but something that was spilling way outside that caldron, and affecting not only U.S. interests but Israeli interests, and in rather permanent ways in the long term."

Powell has so far succeeded in preventing a wider conflict between Israel and the Arabs. In this effort, he was aided by a charter member of the axis of evil--Iran--which counseled restraint along Israel's northern frontier to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Sharon and Arafat, on the other hand, refused to act according to U.S. preferences, which depend on a framework of relations that the two leaders have conspired to destroy.

All sides are prepared to grasp at the convening of the international conference, not so much because anyone believes that it will produce peace between Israel and its Arab antagonists but rather because it solves other, more immediate problems. The Sharon government views the parley as reducing pressure to engage the Palestinians directly in substantive diplomacy. Arafat is eager to reaffirm that he remains the interlocutor for Palestinian interests. The Bush administration and the Saudis are keen to be seen as doing something to keep the conflict from plunging the entire region into a maelstrom of violence and discontent. The proposed conference may well achieve all these aims without Israel and the Palestinians addressing the issues at the heart of their bloody contest.