Sharon’s New Fan Club

If you want to know how things have changed in the Middle East, try this one: even State Department Arabists are saying nice things about Ariel Sharon. And they’re taking the name of Yasser Arafat in vain.

The hawkish former general they once feared has surprised critics who were expecting a bulldozer in a china shop. "I’m in the rare role of defending Sharon," said one foreign policy official. "He’s shown strong leadership and restraint. He’d prefer no violence. I can’t say the same thing for Arafat."

Not everything Sharon has done pleases the administration, but next to Arafat, he looks pretty good.

President Bush has repeatedly made it clear he holds Arafat most responsible for the rising death toll in the Middle East. The Palestinian leader could be doing "a lot more" to end the violence, Bush said, suggesting Arafat has "no will for peace."

Did Arafat give the orders for last week’s suicide bombings? No, say U.S. officials. So, is Israel right to hold him responsible? Yes, they respond. Why? Because he has refused to honor his repeated commitments — most recently given personally to CIA Director George Tenet in June — to "apprehend, question and incarcerate" terrorists.

Just 24 hours before the Jerusalem attack, he invited those who later took credit for the suicide bombings to join his government.

Administration officials say Arafat is doing nothing to end the violence because he wants to keep things simmering. But they don’t know whether he wants them to boil over.

Many believe he no longer has the tight control he once did, but he has demonstrated he still has the power to crack down when he wants to. One school of thought says he won’t turn down the heat until he can show his people some political gains to justify the suffering and sacrifices his Intifada imposed on them.

Another view, is that he wants to keep the tumult going at a level low enough to avert a full-scale war that could destroy the PA and send him back to exile. But at the same time, it must be high enough to avoid negotiations with Israel that will force him to make tough decisions and compromises.

Either way, his strategy to shift the blame for both the violence and lack of peace negotiations on Sharon has been transparent to Washington D.C. officials. PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, Hamas chieftain Abdel Aziz Rantisi and some Arab-American groups have justified the suicide bombings as a response to Sharon’s policies. Arafat has gone further, privately telling some visitors that Israeli agents actually carried out the Tel Aviv disco bombing in June and other attacks on Jews just to make him look bad.

The Bush foreign policy team knows what the problem is, but they have no solution.

They are clearer on what they don’t want to do. This president, they say, has no desire to be "the Arafat desk officer" or to run around holding useless summits and signing meaningless agreements, as his predecessors are perceived to have done.

He also knows that Israel enjoys widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where Arafat is as popular as his buddy Saddam Hussein, and Bush is not looking for a losing political confrontation. Arafat is a compulsive liar, and Sharon is a man of his word, said one U.S. official. "We may not always agree with [Sharon], but he’s a straight shooter."

The Bush administration has shown a surprising ability to avoid some of the pitfalls that have tripped up its predecessors. But it has yet to articulate a coherent and workable Middle East policy.