WASHINGTON — Despite his mounting legal and political problems at home, Prime Minister Sharon is making headway in securing U.S. support for his unilateral withdrawal plan and aggressive efforts to crush Hamas, according to American and Israeli sources.
Encouraged by the relatively mild response of Arab leaders to Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Bush administration is seeking Arab support for Sharon’s plan for a pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. In a sign of Sharon’s progress in Washington, the administration, after initial skepticism, is considering ways to reward the prime minister for uprooting Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, American and Israeli sources said.
The White House is also willing to accept, with some limits, Sharon’s pre-withdrawal strategy of launching a grinding assault on the Hamas leadership and infrastructure in Gaza.
“The Americans are basically telling us: ‘Do it, but do it quietly, so that the ricochets don’t reach Baghdad,” an adviser to Sharon told the Forward. “They are saying: ‘Do what you need to do, but keep our regional interests in mind.’”
Sources close to the White House confirmed that the prevailing view in the administration is that Israel has the right to fight Hamas and that a concerted Israeli military effort against the Islamic group would eventually make it easier for the Palestinian Authority to confront militant groups after an Israeli withdrawal. This view, sources said, was reinforced earlier this week when the new Hamas leader, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, lashed out at Washington. Speaking to a crowd of 5,000 at a Gaza City memorial ceremony for Yassin, Rantisi declared: “Bush is an enemy of God, an enemy of Islam, an enemy of Muslims.” He continued: “America has announced a war against Allah, Sharon has announced a war against Allah. Allah announces a war against America, Bush and Sharon.”
Replying to Rantisi’s vitriol, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: “Peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved by dismantling and disarming the terrorist capabilities of organizations that take innocent lives in order to prevent the peace process from moving forward. We don’t think that Hamas and other Palestinian groups should be permitted to undermine the aspirations of both the Palestinian and the Israeli people.”
Boucher’s comment was interpreted by Israeli diplomats as a sign of U.S. support for Israel’s military campaign against Hamas.
A delegation of three senior U.S. officials — William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs; Stephen Hadley, deputy director of the National Security Council, and Elliott Abrams, the council’s senior director of Near Eastern and African Affairs — traveled to the Middle East this week in an attempt to promote Sharon’s plan, which the White House recently characterized as a “positive” and potentially “historic” interim step.
Sharon is expected to present a detailed plan to President Bush when he visits the White House in two weeks. Bush is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak several days before the Sharon visit and with King Abdullah II of Jordan several days after.
“Sharon’s ability to set the agenda is almost as stunning as the relative passivity among all the other parties,” said Jon Alterman, a former state department specialist on the Middle East who now heads the Washington-based Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Burns, Hadley and Abrams are engaged in “an ongoing dialogue between us and the Israeli government, but also between us and other regional players” as to how Sharon’s plan can advance President Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, Boucher said. The spokesman did not mention the road map. An Israeli diplomat in Washington noted that American officials barely give even public lip service to the American-backed plan, which was based on reciprocal, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian steps. “The only game now is Sharon’s unilateral plan,” said the Israeli diplomat.
Sharon’s approach, Israeli and American sources said, may assuage two major American concerns: that an Israeli pullout would allow Hamas to take control of Gaza afterward, and that it would be seen as a victory for terrorism.
Senior Israeli sources said that Sharon and his advisors have been trying in the past weeks to convince a skeptical Bush administration that Sharon’s disengagement plan does not represent the permanent collapse of the U.S.-backed road map, but instead reinforces Washington’s strategic interests and boosts President Bush’s political standing.
“What we are basically telling the Americans is that we are performing maintenance to the road map,” a senior adviser to Sharon told the Forward. “We are preserving the option that the road map could be applied in the future. And Bush knows that if that will eventually succeed, he will cut the coupons.”
The aide to Sharon said that at first the Bush administration was taken aback when Israeli officials asked for a “reward” in return for the Gaza pullout. Why, administration officials reportedly wondered, should America reward Israel for taking a step that serves its own interests?
“What we are explaining to them, however, is that we are negotiating with them, in lieu of the Arab party, because we have no Palestinian partner,” the senior aide said.
“We are taking the risks here for Bush to be able to say: ‘I am not only a man of war but a man of peace. I have brought a breakthrough in the Middle East,’” the Sharon aide said. “We the Israelis will fulfill our part of the road map, and you the Americans will deliver the rest.”
He added that, from a political point of view, in order to carry out a grand move of uprooting all of Gaza’s Jewish settlements and some of the West Bank settlements, Sharon needs to show Israeli voters a “significant reward.”
The Bush administration has reportedly turned down Israel’s chief request, that as a reward for the pullout, America will guarantee that any final deal with the Palestinians will allow Israel to keep the West Bank settlement blocs of Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel.