WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is seeking ways to bolster Israeli Prime Minister Sharon in his Likud primary fight against Benjamin Netanyahu, while trying to avoid the appearance of meddling in an Israeli election.
Senior administration officials recently told Jewish communal leaders — many of whom privately back Sharon — that the White House intends to redouble its efforts to support the prime minister. A top administration goal, the officials said, was to avoid U.S moves or statements that could complicate Sharon’s political standing.
On Wednesday, during a brief meeting between the two leaders in New York, which took place at the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush praised Sharon. “I know it was hard” to pull out from Gaza, Bush said, “but I admire your courage.” Bush also said it was time for the Palestinians to “establish a government that will be peaceful to Israel.”
The meeting in New York followed several recent steps by the United States to prop up Sharon and avoid conflicts with Jerusalem over settlements.
“I just don’t see American pressure on Sharon” before the next general election in Israel, said Shlomo Brom, Israel’s former deputy national security adviser. Brom is now a visiting scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank funded by the federal government.
Sharon has drawn strong praise from the White House for his disengagement plan, which included the dismantlement of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. Surveys have found consistently that the plan was favored by a solid majority of Israelis. Polls of Likud voters, however, show Sharon trailing Netanyahu, who resigned from the government on the eve of the Gaza pullout and subsequently announced his intention to challenge the prime minister. The Likud primary is expected to take place before the end of the year, with general elections to follow as early as February or March.
Bush administration officials said that in Sharon, the president sees a leader who has proved his ability to deliver on difficult promises and demonstrated a commitment to maintaining strong relations with the White House.
Bush seemed to convey his leanings last month, on August 11, during a one-on-one interview with Channel 1 Television’s Yaron Deckel. This was the president’s first interview with an Israeli journalist. The discussion began outside at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, but moved indoors after it began to rain. Deckel confirmed this week that as they went inside he told the president that in a few months Bush could find himself hosting a new Israeli prime minister at the ranch.
According to Deckel, Bush replied, “I prefer stability.”
When Deckel asked Bush on camera about Netanyahu, the president replied that he had met “Bibi.” Bush went on to say that while Netanyahu is “going to make the decision he thinks is necessary for Israel’s good,” he believes “the decision that Prime Minister Sharon has made, and is going to follow through on, will be good for Israel.”
It wasn’t the first time that the Bush administration turned to Deckel to convey a show of support for Sharon.
In March, he was astounded to see the name and home phone number of a top American official on his caller ID. This occurred after Sharon’s right-wing opponents charged that Bush had abandoned his assurance. They also stated that Israel should not be expected to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and resettle Palestinian refugees within Israel-proper as a part of a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. The name and number belonged to Condoleezza Rice, who was calling to insist that Bush had not backtracked on his assurances to Sharon.
Rice’s office, in a similar step, acted quickly last month to neutralize claims that the secretary of state and the Bush administration were pressuring Sharon. As the last Jewish settlers in Gaza were being evacuated, The New York Times quoted Rice as saying that America expects Israel to deliver more than just a withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon’s opponents celebrated the quote as proof of American pressure in an effort to discredit the disengagement plan. The State Department posted the whole interview on its Web site immediately — including portions that The Times did not publish — in an effort to show that the quote was taken out of context and that Rice actually had placed the onus on the Palestinians to take the next step.
In recent weeks, as Netanyahu moved to rally support within the Likud ranks, the White House’s point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, reportedly reassured Jewish communal leaders that the administration would redouble its support for Sharon. Jewish communal leaders privately said that they view Sharon not only as the leader who has the best chance of advancing the peace process, but also as the one who has the best chance of maintaining a rock-solid relationship with the White House.
Sharon also has shown his willingness to accommodate the administration.
Late last month, after completing the removal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, Sharon declared publicly that Israel would restart construction along the so-called e-1 corridor connecting the Jewish neighborhoods in the northeastern section of Jerusalem to the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The Bush administration, which for years has opposed the plan, quickly objected. Shortly thereafter, Olmert clarified that no construction was taking place and that it would be “irresponsible” for Israel to violate its pledge to Washington to halt construction along the corridor. Netanyahu immediately charged that Sharon was “giving in to international demands.”
The flap over Ma’ale Adumim seems to have ended in a compromise between the Sharon government and the Bush administration: Israel will engage only in security-related construction in the area, including a large police station, but will refrain from constructing any housing units.
Observers note that on several other recent occasions the Bush administration has sought to avoid a fight over settlements in the West Bank.
Last month, the Bush administration quietly dropped its demand that the United States and Israel jointly determine boundaries for construction in West Bank settlements. The demarcation was supposed to be used as a tool to enforce a freeze on settlement construction in the future — but the administration preferred to maintain ambiguity on the issue and avoid pressuring Israel. Observers said that the American concession was much more significant than Sharon’s announcement about Ma’ale Adumim.
In another sign of American efforts to avoid a showdown on settlements, the administration signaled last week that it would not immediately pressure Israel to dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank.
“We don’t put a gun to Israel’s head on commitments that it makes to us,” said the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, during a farewell interview with Israel Radio last week.