Bush probably won’t gamble

To understand and appreciate the Bush administration’s policy regarding Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan, we must briefly reexamine the record. For three and a half years now, the administration’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/peace process has been characterized by high rhetoric and little action. On the one hand, President Bush is the first US leader to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state; his policy speech of June 24, 2002 constitutes a far reaching prescription for a two state solution. And in March 2003 he endorsed the roadmap, with its strong demands on both Palestinians and Israelis.

At the same time, still rhetorically, Bush has laid down tough benchmarks for US willingness to make good on its commitment to a Palestinian state: Yasser Arafat must be removed or at least neutralized as a leader; Palestinians must democratize and introduce new standards of transparency in their governance.

But at the level of action, the picture is very different. The administration never dispatched a very high level envoy for a long stay in the region to represent its interest in advancing a solution. It never sought to organize heavy Arab pressure on Arafat to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure or on Sharon to dismantle outposts. It did not provide massive support for Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) during his short premiership last year, even though he answered every US (and Israeli) criterion for a Palestinian leader. Within a few months after US endorsement of the roadmap it was clear to all that the administration never viewed that formula as much more than a means of leveraging regional and European support for its campaign in Iraq. Since election year began in America a few months ago, even the rhetoric has dried up.

Now along comes Ariel Sharon and requests Bush’s blessing for his disengagement plan. Sharon’s motives are not entirely clear. He is under a legal cloud that threatens his entire political career. He wants to exploit disengagement in Gaza to strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank. He has never endorsed the demographic argument and never told the public why all of a sudden in his view abstract "security concerns" mandate disengagement and dismantling of settlements he himself built. He has still not removed any outposts to speak of, and he allows settlement construction to proceed apace at a number of sites.

On the other hand Sharon is, here and there, moving the fence back to a more reasonable, green line-based location, and he makes the case that removal of settlements, coupled with the "new" fence, will dovetail nicely with phase II of the roadmap, thereby seemingly giving the president a solid Middle East accomplishment in an election year.

Sharon wants to wrap all this up in a triumphant visit to Washington. The administration is cautious, and repeatedly postpones the date. It is making considerable demands on Sharon regarding the fence, settlement expansion, and coordination of transfer of territory with the more moderate Palestinians. But it faces a situation close to chaos in Palestine, and presumably understands that Sharon’s political (and legal) position is increasingly shaky.

Bush knows he must get to election day in November with Iraq solidly on the way to a new era of democracy. But until now he apparently assumed that the best case he need make on election day for Israel-Palestine would be that American crisis management had succeeded in keeping that conflict from getting too far out of hand–pending a better, post-Arafat day. The American public right now is very interested in Baghdad, where its sons and daughters are serving, but not in what goes on in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The president was even able to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict completely in his January state-of-the-union address.

Will this administration, with its sorry record of missed opportunities and non-action in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and its huge gamble in Iraq, take an election year chance on Sharon and his disengagement plan? Can it safely assume that the transfer of power will work out smoothly; that Sharon will not exploit Bush’s preoccupation with elections to build more settlements and fences in the West Bank that hinder a solution; that the entire project will not collapse into an Israeli governmental crisis?

The payoff could be the first real progress in three and a half years; this would be good politically for both Bush and Sharon. Or it could be a major fiasco, laid by Sharon and Arafat at Bush’s doorstep.

The odds are that the hands-off approach will again win out. Sharon will be asked to postpone any withdrawal until after US elections, to keep his preparations low key until then, and meanwhile to keep the conflict from getting out of hand.

Knowing Sharon, such a "back burner" situation may well be what he really wants.