Sharon Loses Some Influence With Bush

After President Bush’s late July meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, one thing is clear: Ariel Sharon no longer will have things all his own way in Washington.

Bush pointedly expressed admiration and respect for Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, whom he called "a leader of vision and courage and determination."

Still, Sharon was able to deflect U.S. pressure on Israel over the security fence it is building along the border with the West Bank and to underline Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians must crack down on terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The fact that Bush was effusive in his praise of Abbas — despite Abbas’ refusal to dismantle terrorist groups — worries the Israelis.

In his meetings with Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, Sharon made it clear that unless the Palestinians dismantle terrorist groups — as they are obliged to do in the first phase of the "road map" peace plan — Israel will not move on to the second phase. Sharon added that he doubts that the Palestinians will act without considerable U.S. pressure.

So far, such pressure has not been forthcoming. Israeli analysts believe that Bush went easy on Abbas, because, having invested so much in Middle East peacemaking, he wants to show the Palestinians that the United States is an "honest broker" that can deliver a fair deal.

Bush also hopes his overt show of support will shore up Abbas’ shaky status among the Palestinian public, analysts say. Ironically, Abbas’ weakness on the Palestinian street is proving to be his strength: Against the backdrop of that weakness, he has been able press for U.S. support and Israeli gestures of compromise.

Nowhere has the new U.S. "even-handedness" been more apparent than on the issue of the security fence. After his meeting with Abbas, Bush even adopted Palestinian terminology, calling the fence a "wall" and saying he would speak to Sharon about the route, urging changes wherever it causes hardship for Palestinians or cuts too deeply into the West Bank.

Sharon went to his meeting with Bush armed with aerial photographs showing that only 10 percent of the security barrier actually is a wall, in areas where snipers in Palestinian cities along the West Bank border could fire at drivers on a major Israeli highway. The rest of the barrier consists of an electronic fence, barbed wire obstacles and patrol roads, like the security fences along Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Jordan.

For weeks, Israeli officials at all levels have been trying to convince their U.S. counterparts of the need for a barrier to stop terrorists from infiltrating Israeli cities. In almost three years of the terrorist intifada, they note, not a single suicide bomber has successfully infiltrated from the Gaza Strip — which is fenced off — while more than 250 have entered Israel from the West Bank.

In their meetings with Sharon, Bush and Rice raised two concerns: That the fence creates political facts on the ground in advance of a territorial settlement with the Palestinians, and that it encompasses too much Palestinian land.

Sharon has said that the fence is not meant to have any political significance, and in the future, it could be moved, depending on where the final borders are drawn. Moreover, he said, the most controversial segment — a sizable bulge into the West Bank to include the city of Ariel, one of Israel’s largest in the West Bank — is not scheduled for construction until early next year, leaving time for disagreements to be resolved.

Bush did not pressure Sharon to stop construction of the fence or move it back to the Green Line — the pre- 1967 border between Israel and Jordan’s West Bank — but the two sides agreed to hold further consultations on the route, with the aim of minimizing hardship to Palestinians.

The U.S. intervention on the fence may not have stopped its construction, but it certainly ended any notion Sharon might have entertained of building a second fence along the Jordan Valley to protect Jewish settlements there.

The fear of being left with a minuscule Palestine, enclosed by fences on all sides, was one reason Abbas sought an American-led peace process. Preempting a two-fence plan is the first major achievement of the new Abbas strategy — though Sharon also can claim that the fence galvanized the Palestinians into choosing diplomacy over war.

For Sharon, though, it’s not the fence or its route that is likely to undermine the peace process. It is the Palestinians’ failure to disband terrorist groups. Getting that point across was the main objective of Sharon’s Washington visit. He told Bush that he believed the peace process would collapse in a matter of months if Abbas failed to act against the terrorist groups.

"We are concerned that this welcome quiet will be shattered any minute as a result of the continued existence of terror organizations, which the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to eliminate or dismantle," Sharon said at a news conference.

In the news conference, Bush demanded that the Palestinian Authority undertake "sustained, targeted and effective operations to confront those engaged in terror and to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

However, Israeli analysts point out that, in his meeting with Abbas, Bush did not lay down a timetable for such action, nor did he specify how the terrorists should be confronted.

The question is whether, in the wake of the meetings, Bush will find ways to persuade both sides to do what is needed to advance the diplomatic process and rebuild mutual trust.