Monday, May 03, 2004

The "Bush-Sharon Axis" falls flat on its face....

Having, once again, antagonized friend and foe alike and triggering more anti-Americanism around the globe, Bush and his right-wing cohorts scramble for direction:

Washington Post Staff Writer - Monday, May 3, 2004

Gamble on Sharon Goes Awry for Bush - Likud Vote Against Plan a Blow to U.S. Credibility By Glenn Kessler

President Bush took a huge diplomatic gamble two weeks ago when he forcefully embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and handed Israel key concessions on a final peace deal. The backlash in Arab and European countries was especially intense, but administration officials argued Sharon's plan carried the seeds of a breakthrough in the stalled peace process.

Now, the Likud Party's overwhelming rejection of that plan has left the administration's credibility in the Middle East in tatters. The tilt toward Israel will not soon be forgotten by the Arab world, but it will be harder for the administration to claim that Bush's support of Sharon has made a difference. Moreover, the Likud vote comes when the image of the United States is already greatly damaged by accounts of psychological and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers.

"The real objective of giving Sharon the blank check he left with was to shore up his political support at home," said a State Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We paid a very high price and did not get a return."

Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the vote yesterday "is an embarrassment diplomatically" for the Bush administration and "now they have the worst of both worlds." He faulted the administration for giving in to many of Sharon's key demands, including saying that in a final peace deal some Israel settlements in the West Bank would be retained and that Palestinians would have to give up their right to return to lands they lost during Israel's war of independence. Instead, he said, Bush should have given just general support to the plan.

The administration's next step is unclear. U.S. officials, fuming that Sharon did not wage a strong lobbying campaign once he had Bush's support, still hope Sharon will be able to push his plan through because polls show that most Israelis support it. Calling Sharon's proposal "a courageous and important step toward peace," the White House said in a statement last night that it would consult with Israell "about how to move forward."

The administration in recent days has tried to emphasize its concern for the Palestinians, such as floating an economic stabilization plan for Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, in part relying on financial support of the World Bank, officials said. As part of the diplomatic offensive, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice last week called some Arab countries that were behind in making payments to shore up the Palestinian Authority.

Tomorrow, at the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is to meet with European and U.N. officials to win support for the plan. Later in the week Jordanian King Abdullah, who angrily postponed a visit to Washington after Bush's embrace of Sharon, is coming here to meet with Bush.

Sharon, knowing the president faced a potentially close election in November, had threatened to cancel his trip to Washington if the administration did not bend on some of his requests, outlined in an exchange of letters made public after Sharon's White House visit. The diplomatic fallout was immediate: Besides Abdullah canceling his visit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Bush's closest allies, said he could not endorse Israel keeping settlements.

French President Jacques Chirac said such unilateral actions were "doomed to failure" and harshly criticized Bush's move. "One cannot unilaterally modify international law, nor preempt the results of a negotiation which sooner or later will be obviously necessary," he said. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared after the announcement "there exists today a hatred of Americans never equaled in the region."

Sources said Abdullah, in a private letter to Bush, asked for his own letter that would provide acknowledgment that the Palestinians would receive compensation, such as territory, if Israel retained settlements. State Department officials have drafted such a letter but it is not clear whether the White House is inclined to grant the king's request.

Egypt, which would play a crucial role in policing the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent arms smuggling once the Israelis withdrew, also has sought public assurances from the White House.

The administration had hoped to assuage European anger and win some sort of endorsement of the plan, when a Middle East coordinating group known as the Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- meets in New York tomorrow. But that will be more difficult in the wake of Sharon's defeat.

"We have to prove there is a process underway and we weren't played by Sharon," the State Department official said. "But we'll get hammered and our judgment will be questioned beyond belief."

Seeking to mitigate the diplomatic backlash, administration officials have emphasized that the letters with Sharon stressed that a final peace deal needed to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians -- and that the letters also committed Israel to take steps to ease Palestinians' suffering.

Moreover, they have argued that for Israel to leave Gaza -- and four small settlements in the West Bank -- would represent the best hope of restarting the peace process. "We have to seize the moment," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told Congress last week. "I'm not going to sit here and kind of give you a bunch of eyewash that all our friends in the Arab world are really behind this; they're not, but they do see some positive elements."

But the debate in the Arab world, one Arab diplomat said yesterday, was not whether the Sharon plan was positive but how the U.S. position has changed. Arab officials privately said they feared Sharon had lured Bush into a diplomatic trap. Although Bush administration officials had said for weeks they were not negotiating with the Sharon government, merely listening to ideas, Arab officials believed every line of the letters between Bush and Sharon was carefully argued and negotiated, with Sharon winning most of the concessions.

While Sharon remained publicly committed to the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," Arab officials were dubious. They viewed Sharon's plan as an effort to freeze the process.

In a little-noticed letter between Rice and Sharon's chief of staff, Israel promised a key U.S. goal -- "territorial contiguity" of a Palestinian state -- in only the northern West Bank. The Israelis pledged to aim for "transportation contiguity" in the rest of the West Bank, meaning a state scattered among Israeli settlements and linked by roads and bridges.


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