WASHINGTON — There was a moment during his appearance with President Bush on the White House lawn last Tuesday when Prime Minister Sharon seemed to reveal more than he intended of his inner state of mind right now. Working through his prepared remarks, Sharon briefly fumbled with pages that appeared to be stuck together. Bush leaned over to help. Sharon, after a moment’s confusion, offered a quip about American-Israel relations. “As you can see,” he joked, “we need your help.”
It was a momentary slip and quick comeback by a jet-lagged, 75-year-old workhorse. Yet it seemed clear, at least to the Israelis present, that the prime minister’s mind was simply elsewhere.
For that matter, so was Bush’s.
The two leaders had come together to discuss advancing the peace process and shoring up the shaky rule of the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and discuss they did. As expected, they aired their disagreements over Israel’s so- called security fence, which Bush calls an unnecessary provocation and Sharon insists is a necessary tool against terrorism. Bush was expected to press Sharon to stop construction. Instead Sharon convinced Bush to “agree to disagree,” officials said. Sharon told Bush that the real threat to stability comes from the continuing danger of Islamic terrorist groups, which are using the cover of the current cease-fire to rearm and regroup. Sharon warned that the failure of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to confront the extremists head-on could spell an early doom for the cease-fire and the broader “road map” process. Bush appeared to agree.
If there was a lack of drama to the meeting, it was partly because the two leaders are in broad agreement about the nature of the threat and what is needed. In part, though, it seemed that for both men the real drama was elsewhere. Sharon, Israeli observers agreed, appeared distracted throughout his visit, no doubt partly because of worries about the ongoing Israeli police investigation into allegations of bribe-taking and campaign finance fraud against his sons. The investigation is said to be closing in on the prime minister himself, representing what could be the greatest threat of Sharon’s stormy career.
As for Bush, after meeting Sharon he was headed into a difficult session with the Saudi foreign minister, who had come to town to complain about the damaging congressional report on the September 11 attacks. The report is just the latest in a series of blows to the president’s anti-terrorist image, lowering his poll ratings and making some Republicans worry for the first time about his once-certain prospects for reelection next year.
With those worries looming, it’s no wonder the Sharon-Bush summit lacked drama. Whatever their policy disagreements, both men saw their session as a break.
No less important, the two leaders see eye to eye on the things they consider important. Sharon gave the president detailed intelligence about efforts by Hamas, the main Islamic militant group, to rearm and regroup under the cover of the internal Palestinian cease-fire. Sharon warned that Israel would react in force if Hamas renewed its attacks against Israeli civilians, and that such a retaliation might ultimately Abu Mazen. Israeli sources said that Bush agreed with Sharon’s critical assessment of the situation, and of Abu Mazen’s performance so far.
Israel’s own defense establishment is not so unanimous. In a rare public spat, Israel’s military chief of staff clashed with his own military intelligence chief this week over Palestinian performance and intentions. The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, said in a radio interview that a resumption of Palestinian violence is imminent. The military intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi, told reporters that the internal cease-fire between Abu Mazen and the Islamic militants is “taking hold” and could well last beyond the agreed three-month period.
Bush, despite his doubts, urged Sharon to be as patient and generous as possible toward Abu Mazen. A senior Israeli source admitted after the White House summit that “Saving Private Abu Mazen” is the only game in town, and Sharon knows it.
On their main point of contention, the separation fence, Sharon vowed not to stop construction despite American objections. But he agreed to examine ways of easing the hardships imposed on Palestinians by the fence. American sources said after the meeting that they assume Sharon will “take his time” in conducting his examination, especially along the controversial stretch of fence planned to encircle the towns of Ariel and Emmanuel, deep inside the West Bank. Washington will look the other way.
The fence will become a “wedge issue” between the two allies, the sources said, only if and when Abu Mazen is seen to be taking vigorous steps against terrorists. At that point, Washington will view the fence as “irrelevant” to Israel’s security needs, as Bush hopefully predicted on the White House lawn, and Sharon will face pressure to stop it.
Sharon also promised Bush that he would remove 12 more “unauthorized outposts” in the near future, in addition to the 22 supposedly evacuated already. Bush pointed out to Sharon that for every outpost removed another takes its place. The prime minister dutifully pledged to evacuate those as well.
In a subtle reminder of their shared anti-terrorist philosophy, Sharon expressed deep support for Bush’s policies on Iraq. He urged the president to get tougher with Iran, showing him intelligence that links Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to renegade Fatah-Tanzim cells operating in the northern West Bank. Sharon said Tehran has an interest in destabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in order to sow ferment in the region and whip up anti-American sentiment.
In the end, Israeli sources said, the meeting between the two leaders was “super-friendly.” Each went out of his way to praise the other’s policies and efforts. At their press briefing on the lawn, Sharon offered the president such lavish praise that some Israelis fretted the prime minister might be seen as “endorsing” Bush in next year’s presidential elections, angering Democrats. Sharon does not appear worried.
Sharon has his own political problems, as he reminded the president. He told Bush his latest concessions to the Palestinians, especially the planned release of hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners, had sparked sharp protests on the right, including in his own party. Israeli sources said Sharon meant his words in effect as a warning to Bush not to push him too far, or he would risk destabilizing the prime minister’s political position.
According to some Israeli observers, the prime minister appeared distracted at various times during his visit, not least when he fumbled with his speech on the lawn. Part of Sharon’s distraction was due to simple fatigue, but part, observers say, stems from his growing preoccupation with the police investigations into his campaign finance activities. The decision of Sharon’s son Gilad to remain silent during a recent police interrogation, as well as his refusal, repeated this week, to hand over key documents, have embarrassed Sharon and evoked widespread criticism in Israeli legal circles. In a private briefing with Israeli reporters in Washington, Sharon was questioned repeatedly about his son’s behavior but flatly refused to comment.
Sharon’s visit to Washington was described both by American and Israeli sources as “a maintenance job” aimed mainly at firming up the cease-fire. Both Sharon and Bush believe the matter is largely out of their hands, and that the fate of process depends primarily on Abu Mazen’s future performance.
Besides, both men face problems of their own.