WASHINGTON — Faced with bleak media accounts of Monday’s meeting between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, both the White House and the Israeli premier reached out to Jewish communal leaders in an attempt to put a positive spin on the summit.
Both sides were insisting that the meeting at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, was marked more by harmony than by disagreement.
On Tuesday, the administration’s point man on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams, spoke with Jewish communal leaders on a conference call to assure them that the American-Israel relationship was stronger than ever. He said that although differences exist between the two countries over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — as has always been the case — the relationship is not in crisis.
Abrams allegedly alluded to media reports that described the meeting as tense and bleak from beginning to end. He insisted that the meeting was an excellent one between two leaders who have established a superb relationship. The conference call was off the record, so participants declined to quote Abrams directly. However, they said that Abrams, who directs the Near East and North African Affairs section of the National Security Council, insisted that the news media were distorting the content and the atmosphere of the meeting.
On Wednesday, Sharon also tried hard to put a positive spin on the meeting and on the Texas summit. In a Washington meeting with about 50 Jewish communal leaders in Washington, Sharon said that the Crawford meeting was “very good” and that it underscored the strong American-Israeli relationship. Sharon told the Jewish leaders that regardless of future developments in the peace process, Israel would be “very careful not to put the president in a difficult position.”
Jewish organizational leaders seemed happy to be reassured. “My reports say that it was a very good meeting in terms of the really critical issues,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“It is regrettable that, by virtue of what happened in Israel weeks before, the issue of [West Bank settlements expansion] became the public issue, the focal point, rather than what the two parties had hoped for,” Hoenlein said. “It’s just regrettable that it became so blown out of proportion.”
At their joint press conference in Crawford, Bush and Sharon presented conflicting positions on two key issues. The first disagreement revolved around the Israeli plan — known as the E-1 plan — to significantly extend the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim westward in order to link it to Jerusalem. The other issue was the question of the conditions that should be met for Israel to consider itself bound by the road map peace plan. The Bush administration believes that the plan is already under way. Sharon said that as far as Israel is concerned, the peace plan, which prescribes reciprocal Israeli and Palestinian peace-building measures, would only kick in once Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meets his commitments to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist organizations, end incitement and reform his security services.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told the Forward that he backed Sharon on the settlement issue. “They’re not creating new places, just enlarging them,” Reid said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
The prime minister held separate meetings on Capitol Hill with the congressional leadership and the Jewish members of Congress. Participants said that about 18 Jewish members of the House of Representatives attended, as well as several Jewish Senators. The meeting with the Jewish legislators lasted about 90 minutes, participants said, and focused on Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Participants said that Sharon painted a grim picture of the inability of Abbas to reign in violent factions, including members of his own Fatah movement.
One member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the overall atmosphere in the room was somber and left many of the participants pessimistic about the future of the peace process.
Some Jewish communal leaders indicated that the tensions between Israel and America, for the most part, were triggered by Sharon’s declarations in recent weeks that he intended to implement the E-1 plan. “There were mistakes made in public discussions of something that is not imminent,” Hoenlein said.
Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, agreed. “It was a mistake for Sharon to put it on the table now, weeks before he meets with Bush. It made no sense,” said Reich, who is now the president of the Israel Policy Forum. Sharon knew “that he was going contrary to the president’s wishes” and therefore should have expected the overt disagreement on this issue.”
Jewish communal leaders noted that the disagreement on the Ma’ale Adumim expansion notwithstanding, Sharon and Bush agree, overall, on what should be the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “There is a shared strategic vision about what needs to take place now to really get this process moving,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “That’s what is really important.”