Sharon at the Ranch

Published April 15, 2005, issue of April 15, 2005.
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Summit meetings typically are staged events whose purpose is to let two leaders throw their arms around each other and tell the world how much they have in common. Now and then, though, a summit is staged with the opposite goal: to let the leaders bump up against each other and show off their differences.

This week’s U.S.-Israeli summit in Texas looked suspiciously like the second sort: an opportunity for President Bush to show the Palestinians and their allies that he is well and truly committed to halting Israeli settlement expansion and securing a contiguous Palestinian state, and for Prime Minister Sharon to show his own right wing that he won’t be pushed around.

It is possible, of course, that the standoff at the end of the meeting was not planned. It’s conceivable that Bush and his aides actually thought Sharon could be convinced in a 90-minute chat to back down publicly on Israeli plans for new construction in the Ma’aleh Adumim corridor east of Jerusalem. It could be that the administration didn’t fully understand Israeli sensitivities surrounding the Holy City, or the constraints operating on Sharon as the Gaza disengagement approaches. It’s also possible that Sharon flew to Texas expecting to be put up at the president’s Crawford ranch, like other honored guests, and was unpleasantly surprised to find himself stashed in a hotel in Waco, 30 minutes away, in an unanticipated display of administration pique over the upcoming talks.

All this is possible, but not terribly likely. Summits are, as noted, scripted affairs. Each leader knew in advance what the other had in mind. The prime minister’s rooms at the Waco Hilton were booked before his El Al jet left Ben-Gurion Airport. All involved knew their lines. They were playing to the balconies.

Bush had to talk tough about the proposed Israeli construction because the Palestinians and their allies are very nervous about it, as they are about everything else related to the future of the West Bank. The Palestinians expect this summer’s limited disengagement to be the first step toward a global settlement resulting in a Palestinian state. That’s the American position, too. Bush needed to say it out loud to Sharon before the Gaza pullout begins, in order to maintain American credibility as an honest broker.

As for Sharon, his success in cobbling together a working Knesset majority to let him leave Gaza is due in part to his resolute ambiguity regarding what comes afterward. Whether or not he has a next step in mind, he could hardly let it appear to be dictated by America. In fact, he needed an opportunity to show Israelis that he’s still the tough guy they elected. He needed a televised spat, and Bush was kind enough to supply one.

The truth is, there was more uniting the two men than dividing them this week. They agreed, as they have in the past, that Israel is entitled to insist on keeping major settlement blocs in a peace agreement. America thus endorses Israel’s position that it won’t return to the 1967 borders. Israel, by drawing the line at settlement blocs, implicitly concedes that it will give up most of the rest of the West Bank. How much Israel keeps and how much it yields are to be negotiated. The Texas summit was not intended to settle the question.

They also agreed that the Palestinians must move faster and more firmly to stop violence, an important message in a week when a barrage of mortar fire rained down on Israelis from Gaza, under the noses of the Palestinian police.

And they agreed that the Israeli withdrawal this summer should be done in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. That’s the something the Palestinians haven’t fully internalized. Judging from their public declarations, Palestinians continue to expect that they can secure their every objective — unabridged sovereignty on every inch of the West Bank and Gaza, a capital in Jerusalem and return of refugees — without having to negotiate, engage or fulfill their own commitments. That’s simply unrealistic.

Bush got it right when he told the reporters in Crawford that the process must proceed step by step, starting with Israel’s “courageous” Gaza pullout. Once that’s done, a new dynamic will have been created, and a great deal more will be possible.

“I want to focus the world’s attention on getting it right in the Gaza,” Bush said, “and then all of a sudden, people will start to say, ‘Gosh, well, that makes sense.’”

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