May 11, 2003

Sharon's Strategy Arik Sharon is,

Sharon's Strategy

Arik Sharon is, if anything, a controversial figure. Widely reviled by legions, a hero to others, Bush's description of him last year as a "man of peace" touched off a veritable maelstrom of commentary. Those who have met him speak of his raconteur propensities and charisma in person.

His most important "constituent", of course, is George Bush. And he's got a pretty good feel for how to keep Bush in his corner, I suspect. Basically, ever since 9/11, Bush has increasingly seen the Israeli leader as similarly confronted by analogous homeland security issues. He emotively connects with Sharon every time another suicide bomber does his or her ghastly deed.

And yet, Bush would still call for Sharon to withdraw "without delay" from the Occupied Territories during large scale Israeli incursions last year. And, in his speech at USC a couple days back, he said this: "If the Palestinian people take concrete steps to crack down on terror, continue on a path of peace, reform and democracy, they and all the world will see the flag of Palestine raised over a free and independent nation. All sides of this conflict have duties. Israel must take tangible steps now to ease the suffering of Palestinians and to show respect for their dignity. And as progress is made toward peace, Israel must stop settlement activity in the occupied territories."

Bush also understands, from conversations with Prince Abdullah or Hosni Mubarak, that large swaths of Palestinian society live under conditions that foster feelings of alienation and humiliation, which is why he often mentions restoration of Palestinian "dignity" as a policy goal.

So why rehash all this now? Well, for one, it appears that we have now entered a new stage regarding the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East peace process.

The first stage might be called the "ABC" or "Anything But Clinton" stage. No more special Middle East envoys traipsing about the region seemingly weekly. No more 18 hour peace processing marathons in places called Sheperdstown. No more dilution of the Presidential coin whereby the prestige of the office was too often used to bridge (relatively minor) gaps between the sides.

There was also a widespread feeling among the Bushies that Camp David II had artificially raised expectations throughout the Middle East without proper diplomatic backstopping. Put another way, Arafat was being asked to make concessions on Jeruslem and was getting in over his head regarding how far he could go on an issue that directly impacts over a billion Muslims the world over. Might it not have been better to coordinate with the Egyptians and Saudis on a coordinated Jerusalem posture? Once the peace talks crumbled, tragically, bloodshed was set to fill the vacuum.

Stage 2 began on 9/11. Recall that virtually the entire energies of the American foreign policy apparatus focused like a laser on, as a preliminary matter, denying al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. Pakistan became of critical import diplomatically. A year later, with Bush's speech to the U.N. on 9/12/02, the focus turned to Iraq. Throughout this period of near constant war the peace process was, if not in deep freeze, very much on the backburner.

Now, with the defeat of Saddam's regime in Iraq, Bush's speech at USC and Powell's trip to the region Stage 3 has begun in earnest. We can trust Bush (who has personally pledged to push hard for a compromise between the parties) when he says his Administration will work hard to help bring about a negotiated settlement. Of course, no Administration since the creation of Israel in 1948 has been able to pull this off. But Bush doesn't appear at all dissuaded by this gloomy historical record.

Key to all this is the so-called Roadmap. The very outset of the Roadmap calls for the following:

"Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel's right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere. All official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel.

Israeli leadership issues unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel, as expressed by President Bush, and calling for an immediate end to violence against Palestinians everywhere. All official Israeli institutions end incitement against Palestinians."

We are all aware that the Palestinians will make the declaration above. After all, it costs them nothing to make it. But Sharon, just today in a press conference with Colin Powell, stated that the time for declarations was over. He, understandably, wants concrete steps to end terror attacks. And he is right that we need to see more stolid action by new Palestinian Authority PM Abbas, not only for its own sake, but also to show the international community that he has actual authority and is not firmly under Arafat's thumb.

But the Middle East peace process has always been a race between moderates pushing for a negotiated settlement and extremists on the ground intent on scuttling the project. There will likely never be zero attacks on Israel during this diplomatic process and to hold out for such a "quiet period" (even a relatively short one) acts only as a public advertisment regarding best timing to Hamas or Jihad Islami or PFLP or DFLP on when to attempt a bloody bus bombing to maximum effect with regard to spoiling nascent peace efforts.

Which is why this op-ed, in the WaPo, but written by Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, worries me:

"When presented with the road map last October, Sharon appointed an interagency team headed by his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, to draft comments aimed at "making the road map consistent with Bush's June 24 speech." The resulting document proposed more than 100 corrections, divided into 15 major groupings, to a road map that was only seven pages long. These maneuvers have created a disconnect between diplomacy and reality. On the rhetorical level, much progress has been made under Bush and Sharon. The road map goes further than Oslo in its firm commitment for Palestinian independence. But as diplomats engage in quasi-theological debates over "sequential or parallel steps" by both sides, the reality on the ground has deteriorated."

Put differently, Sharon's strategy is to remain in Bush's good graces even while likely hurting the chances that the roadmap gets off the ground. Sharon will argue that all his reservations are, at least in spirit (and perhaps in letter), in accord with Bush's June 24th speech. He will, earnestly and often quite reaonably, speak of Israel's legitimate security concerns. He will budge little on concessions pending major overhauls beyond those already taken in the Palestinian Authority's security structures.

Fair enough, perhaps. But Mr. Sharon must also keep in mind that great statesman must take risks and gambles too (like Yitzhak Rabin did thus, tragically, costing him his life).

A major regional threat to Israel has been removed. Arafat has been marginalized and replaced by a PM in Abu Mazen that can strike a deal. There is a President in the Oval Office who well understands his security concerns. But Mr. Sharon must also understand that vital American interests are at stake too. He must treat the Roadmap less as a document to parse and issue reservations about than one to adopt, soberly and with caution, but adopt it and go down it he should--unless Abu Mazen doesn't continue the process of reining in Palestinian terror groups in very serious fashion.

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