Sharon, Abbas Court White House

As the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process inches forward, leaders of both sides are looking to upcoming audiences with President Bush to exert pressure on the other and give the "road map" peace plan some momentum.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, each will seek to persuade the American leader to lean on the other side to move faster — and Bush will be ready to lean on both, Israeli analysts believe.

With domestic criticism growing regarding America’s imbroglio in Iraq, Israeli analysts believe Bush wants progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to help justify the strike against Saddam Hussein. If toppling the Iraqi dictator is seen to have paved the way for an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation — and, with it, a better chance of pacifying the Middle East as a whole — the administration can argue that the war was worthwhile, the argument goes.

Bush, therefore, will want to resolve as many of the disputed issues on the table as he can. For the Palestinians, most important are releasing prisoners, dismantling settlement outposts, freezing construction of Israeli settlements and Israel’s West Bank security fence and easing restrictions on Palestinian civilians.

Israel will ask Bush to demand that the Palestinians dismantle terrorist groups and decommission their weapons and not make do with the groups’ tenuous cease-fire.

Most analysts agree that little progress will be made without concerted American intervention.

More importantly, in their strategic thinking, both Abbas and Sharon put a premium on ties with America. Even before he took over as prime minister, Abbas advocated the use of American and international pressure on Israel, rather than terrorism, to achieve Palestinian goals.

Sharon, who is to meet with Bush on July 29, sees American support as the key to Israel’s position in the world. He believes that ties with the Bush administration must be carefully nurtured and that Israel should seek prior coordination with Washington whenever appropriate, especially in dealing with the Palestinians. In Sharon’s view, it is absolutely vital that the Palestinian issue not be allowed to erode Israel’s ties with Washington.

Of course, there will be tactical maneuvering by both prime ministers, but their meetings with President Bush should be understood in a wider strategic context.

Abbas reportedly will highlight two key issues in his White House meeting on Friday: getting more Palestinian prisoners released and stopping construction of the security fence. He will argue that if Israel is really serious about turning over a new leaf, it should release all Palestinian prisoners, even those with "blood on their hands," i.e., those involved in terror attacks.

On the security fence, the Palestinians have noted the recent sharp differences between Israel and the United States. Israeli officials believe Abbas hopes to use the issue to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States and get the Bush administration to pressure Israel to stop building it, on the grounds that it takes in large swaths of the West Bank and thus prejudges a final territorial accommodation.

Abbas also reportedly will urge Bush to pressure Sharon to put more West Bank cities under Palestinian security control. He argues that unless he has real achievements to show the Palestinian people, his shaky position as prime minister in P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s shadow will be further weakened. Indeed, Abbas hopes his high-profile meeting with Bush will itself give him more standing and credibility on the Palestinian street.

Abbas also apparently intends to use his American sojourn to win support in Congress, the media and the American Jewish community, and has scheduled meetings with key figures in all three groups.

According to aides, Sharon’s main goal will be to convince Bush that the Palestinians must be held to their commitments in the fight against terror. Sharon, they say, will suggest linking further prisoner releases to Palestinian dismantling of militia groups and the collection of illegal weapons.

Sharon will point out that two months have elapsed since the road map was launched at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, in early June. During that time the Palestinians have not taken serious action against Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and Israeli intelligence sources say the terrorist groups continue to arm themselves under cover of the cease-fire. It is time for the Palestinians to act, Sharon will insist.

Sharon hopes to deflect American pressure on Israel by releasing a large group of prisoners and dismantling more illegal West Bank settlement outposts before his meeting with Bush.

As for the fence, Sharon will repeat what he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week: "I am a simple farmer, and I tell you plainly the fence is only a security obstacle to stop suicide bombers, and not in any way a political border."

Sharon has agreed to Palestinian demands to set up a joint Israeli-Palestinian team to agree on a list of prisoners to be released. Though the terrorist groups have made the prisoner release a condition of their cease-fire, it is not one of Israel’s obligations under the road map. However, Israeli officials believe that releasing prisoners may help Abbas’ public stature.

Out of sensitivity to the pressures on Abbas, Sharon has agreed to release some detainees who are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In deference to Israeli public sentiment, however, he is refusing to release prisoners with blood on their hands.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Kenya Attacks Blur Lines of Terrorism

The attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya are not expected to divert the United States from a possible war with Iraq — or change U.S. limits on Israel’s response to Palestinian terror. One immediate effect of the Nov. 28 attacks, thought to be the work of Al Qaeda, may be a subtle change in the way Israel is perceived in the context of the war on terror.

Until now, the Bush administration has tried to distinguish between terror attacks like those of Sept. 11 and Palestinian terror attacks against Israel. Essentially, the administration has argued that the U.S. struggle is an uncompromising one against terrorists bent on destroying democratic values, while Israel’s war is a nationalistic dispute that must be solved through negotiations.

While the administration has condemned both kinds of attacks, some have argued that the distinction granted a sort of legitimacy — at least in many parts of the West — to Palestinian terrorism.

But last week’s attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya may blur those lines, analysts said.

"It highlights the fact that the myth — that all terror against Israel is because it occupies Palestinian territories — is wrong," said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The blurring of the line between Palestinian and other terrorism may make Arab support harder to come by if the United States goes to war against Iraq, a State Department official said.

Arab states have been leery of what they see as the war on terror’s disproportionate focus on Arab and Muslim states. Their resistance to an Iraq war may rise if the Kenya attacks are subsumed into the war on terror and Arabs begin to believe that the United States is attacking Baghdad because of the attacks on Israel.

The attacks initially were claimed by an unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine, but both Israel and the United States believe the attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda.

"Despite the name of the group that claimed responsibility, this does not seem to be a perceived act of Palestinian nationalism," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

An Internet posting attributed to Al Qaeda claims responsibility for the attacks. A "Letter to the American People," also purportedly from Al Qaeda and posted to the Internet several days before the Kenya attacks, for the first time defines support for Israel as the root cause of Al Qaeda’s hatred of the United States.

Analysts say the use of the front name indicates that Al Qaeda is trying to capitalize on the Palestinian issue to build support.

For Israel, the attacks may garner more sympathy from the American public and the Bush administration, but they are not expected to ease U.S. constraints on Israeli military actions against Palestinian terrorism. They also are not expected to alter the U.S. position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be solved diplomatically, or change U.S. backing for the "road map" toward peace crafted by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Israel probably will still find limits to the steps it can take against Palestinian terrorists, experts say.

The State Department frequently has criticized Israel for "targeted killings" and other tactics against Palestinian terrorists. Any Israeli actions that cause civilian casualties still will likely earn American reprimands. However, Israel may be given more leeway to strike at the perpetrators of the Kenya attacks.

"We recognize it creates pressure for the Israeli leadership," one State Department official said. "The Israeli people desire to have justice done as well."

If Israel does launch an attack with U.S. blessing, it will be a shift in policy for the Bush administration, which has tried to keep Israeli military action to a minimum during the run-up to a possible U.S. war with Iraq.

But the State Department seems to understand that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may feel it necessary to respond to preserve political face, especially as Israeli elections approach next month.

Israeli officials hope the Kenya attacks also will solidify perceptions of Israel as a victim of terrorism, and lead to an increase in international and American support. The attacks may make it easier for the United States approve up to $10 billion in loan guarantees and an extra $200 million in emergency aid for Israel. But the United States is not likely to shift its policies on the war against terrorism because of the Kenya attacks.

"Our problem with Al Qaeda didn’t need this to get people’s attention," Alterman said. "It highlights the importance of a global war on terrorism, with the emphasis on global."

Extra Israel Aid: No Slam Dunk

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say they can’t wait to prove their friendship for Israel. They’ll get their chance when the new Congress convenes in January, but some may wish they could take a pass.

The test will come when lawmakers take up a huge new aid request Israeli officials presented to administration officials last week. Israeli newspapers say winning the multibillion-dollar package of grant aid and loan guarantees will be a political slam dunk, but veteran pro-Israel activists tell a different story.

In fact, much of this week’s aid talk may be political playacting intended to give a boost to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his reelection bid, not to produce real shekels in the Israeli treasury.

First, the numbers: Unconfirmed reports suggest Israel is asking for up to $10 billion, with most of that being in the form of loan guarantees, but also including up to $4 billion in extra military aid. The totals are huge, but few in Washington take them seriously.

Traditionally, Israeli officials begin arduous aid negotiations with high-ball figures, then negotiate down. The numbers may also be inflated by Israeli politics; recent leaks may be calculated to show that Sharon, running hard for reelection next month, is best able to manage relations with Israel’s top ally and boost the country’s battered economy.

The Bush White House, satisfied with Sharon’s leadership, has publicly signaled a willingness to talk about the new aid, especially since any aid package won’t hit Congress until long after Israeli voters make their choice.

But there’s no assurance the administration will even bring an aid request to Congress — or that lawmakers will act in a timely fashion.

The next Congress will face unprecedented budgetary pressures because of the recession, Bush administration tax cuts, escalating homeland security costs and the enormous price tag of fighting a worldwide war against terrorism.

A war against Iraq could cost up to $200 billion, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office estimate.

With painful cuts in domestic programs as a backdrop, new foreign-aid spending will face particularly tough scrutiny.

President George W. Bush’s administration is said to be sympathetic to Israel’s new request, but there is a wide gap between sympathy and spending. That was evident in this year’s White House decision to yank $200 million in extra Israel aid from an emergency appropriations bill because of a dispute over spending.

Lawmakers are loathe to vote against aid for Israel, but many, facing voters worried about things like Social Security and Medicare, may be perfectly happy to drag out the debate for years.

Loan guarantees, in which Washington backs up loans from private lenders so Israel can borrow at favorable rates, will be an easier sell because Israel has always paid back its loans on time and because only a fraction of the face value of the loan has to be set aside as a guarantee.

Depending on how the guarantees are structured, they may not technically add to the federal deficit.

But those dollars must still be approved by Congress; with Congress facing a genuine budget emergency, that could produce significant discomfort on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. war on terrorism and the administration’s desperate hunt for allies in the fight against Iraq will also produce a line of Middle Eastern countries looking for military aid, loan guarantees and other forms of assistance.

Indeed, Israeli officials say their extra shot of aid and loan guarantees could be part of a regional package tied to the Iraq conflict. But when all the requests are added up, Congress and the administration may suffer from serious sticker shock.

The administration has also made it clear it wants to shift the focus of U.S. aid to democracy-building, especially in the Middle East. That could add to the competition for scarce aid dollars. Israel’s current aid is not in jeopardy, but new aid will require an extraordinary lobbying effort and genuine political courage by Israel’s newest friends in Congress.

Conservative leaders like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have been trying to portray themselves as more reliable friends than the liberal Democrats, whose ranks include some strong critics of Israel.

But those new friends have never had to take political risks to prove their friendship. It’s one thing to pass nonbinding "sense of the Congress" resolutions supporting Israel, something very different to cough up extra money for Jerusalem during a time of budgetary crisis at home.

The big new aid request will also give the Bush administration powerful new leverage in areas where there have been disagreements between the two allies.

That includes the always-contentious issue of Jewish settlements, which held up loan guarantees during the first Bush administration, as well as administration demands that Israel ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

In Israel, newspapers speak of the new aid package as almost a done deal; in Washington, pro-Israel activists are hunkering down for what is likely to be a long and grueling battle.