Shortly before leaving for his trip to Europe and the Middle East, President Bush met in Washington with members of the foreign press corps. One reporter questioned whether, with an election coming up next year, the president had the political ability to pressure Israel.
“Can you really do that?” the reporter asked.
“Of course I can,” Bush shot back, according to an official White House transcript.
“Listen, if I were afraid of making the decisions necessary — for political reasons — to move the process forward, I wouldn’t be going,” Bush said. “I believe peace is possible, and I believe that I have… responsibilities, now that the conditions are such, to move the process forward.”
The May 29 exchange is just one in a string of recent signs — climaxing with this week’s summit in Aqaba — that the time has probably come to bury the theory that Bush is unwilling to press Sharon for domestic political reasons. According to an Israeli diplomatic dispatch, Bush, when asked privately how he was managing to get Sharon to move forward, replied: “He owes me one.” Now, it seems, after about two years of granting Sharon quite a bit of leeway in the fight against Palestinian terrorism and his effort to make Yasser Arafat “irrelevant,” the president is calling in the debt.
Bush’s recent moves appeared to take Israeli officials and Jewish communal leaders in the United States by surprise. In recent months, they have insisted that the “road map,” with its accelerated timetable requiring the establishment of a Palestinian state, was nothing more than a fleeting attempt to keep British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Colin Powell happy; the real White House policy blueprint for peace, they argued, remained Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002, in which he insisted that no progress could be made until the Palestinians changed leaders and dismantled the terrorist infrastructure in the territories.
Some Israeli and Jewish communal officials clung to this view, despite many warning signs: Bush’s repeated calls for a Palestinian state; his budding relationship with Blair, a strong supporter of the road map; the increasing anger of Arab allies; the sudden willingness of countries on the United Nations Security Council that have supported the road map and opposed the American invasion of Iraq to back a resolution granting England and the United States overall authority in governing Baghdad — suggesting that some serious return gesture from Washington was in the offing.
Regardless of whether Israel misread the White House from the beginning or Bush essentially flip-flopped in recent weeks, it is clear that the calculus in Jerusalem and Jewish circles broke down. This inability to predict or comprehend the current reality in Washington is more alarming than any flaws in the road map or Bush’s newfound willingness to pressure Sharon.
One exception has been Ephraim Halevy, who recently quit as head of Sharon’s National Security Council. Halevy reportedly warned that a clash with Washington over the plan was imminent. These concerns were dismissed in favor of reassurances from Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weissglass, who was negotiating with White House officials over the road map.
Increasingly, the evidence points to a series of miscalculations and misinterpretations on the part of Jerusalem and Jewish groups. In a front-page story, based on interviews with administration officials, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that back in December Bush read over the road map, concluded that it reflected his June 24 speech and told National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice to pass the message on to Jewish groups.
The article undermines much of the conventional wisdom driving Israel and Jewish groups. For example, the newspaper reported that the Middle East leader Bush most respects is Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah — not Sharon. According to the article, Abdullah left a positive impression on the president during their meeting last year at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. The de facto leader of Saudi Arabia reportedly presented Bush with “pictures of Palestinian suffering and a 10-minute videotape of images of children shot and crushed by Israel.”
Another recent report went so far as to allege that the administration had invoked the threat of sanctions in an effort to force Israel to move ahead with the peace process. While the report, which circulated around the Internet before finding its way into the Jerusalem Post, could not be verified by the Forward, administration officials have conspicuously passed up opportunities to deny it or to rule out the possibility of sanctions in the future. And in private few observers are challenging the notion that the White House exerted serious pressure on Sharon prior to the Cabinet’s May 25 endorsement of the road map.
Still, despite such revelations, officials in Jerusalem and Jewish circles talk as if they are still on the same page with Bush on the need to stress the June 24 speech, instead of the road map. They also seem unwilling to wrestle with the implications of the president deciding to directly insert himself into negotiations, which in the end is probably the most important development of all.
Even if one assumes that Bush has remained consistently true to Israel’s understanding of the June 24 speech, it will be difficult for him to accept failure after putting his diplomatic and political credibility on the line by taking part in a summit. Indeed, sources familiar with the thinking of some administration officials say that the recent spate of diplomatic activity represents the start of a sustained push to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Rather than ease up on Israel following the Cabinet’s endorsement of the road map, the administration organized this week’s summit. Bush appointed a new envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, John Wolf, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, and charged him the task of pushing the process.
“My government will provide training and support for a new, restructured Palestinian security service, and we’ll place a mission on the ground led by Ambassador John Wolf,” Bush said, in his remarks at the end of the Aqaba summit. “The mission will be charged with helping the parties to move towards peace, monitoring their progress and stating clearly who is fulfilling their responsibilities.”