As photo-ops go, this one didn’t develop quite as expected.
The meeting Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush at Bush’s vast Texas ranch was to have affirmed the special U.S.-Israel relationship and paved the way forward in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — a triumphant summit between two friends, farmers and statesmen.
Instead, what emerged between the tense lines the two men delivered as a stiff Texas breeze ruffled their scripts were profound differences over how Sharon and Bush perceive Israeli and Palestinian obligations and the future of the peace process.
Bush made his position clear: Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank must stop.
“I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes ‘road map’ obligations or prejudices final-status negotiations,” Bush said, referring to the “road map” peace plan his administration launched three years ago. “Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank.”
That was just the first of three emphatic calls by Bush to end settlement expansion.
Just as emphatically, Sharon reserved the right to build in major settlements that Israel plans to keep in any final agreement.
“It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel’s hands under any future final-status agreement, with all related consequences,” Sharon said.
The only thing keeping a lid on the tensions was the joint commitment to the success of Sharon’s planned evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, scheduled to begin July 20.
Bush urged Israelis and Palestinians to coordinate the pullout.
“By working together, Israelis and Palestinians can lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition,” he said.
At the heart of the dispute were conflicting visions of the road map. Bush sees it as under way; Sharon believes the plan will go into effect only when the Palestinian Authority meets its initial obligations to eradicate terrorism, dismantle terrorist groups and end anti-Israel incitement.
Until that happens, he made clear Israel will not begin considering its settlement obligations under the plan.
“Only after the Palestinians fulfill their obligations, primarily a real fight against terrorism and the dismantling of its infrastructure, can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map,” Sharon said.
Sharon was even more emphatic later, in a meeting with Hebrew-speaking reporters.
“We are not at the road map, we are before the road map,” he said. “As long as the Palestinians don’t take the necessary steps, the road map is not under way.”
Sharon acknowledged that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas has made some progress in maintaining quiet since his January election, but argued that Israel has no simultaneous obligations — at least when it comes to settlements, which Sharon believes should be addressed only in the final stage of negotiations.
Sharon recalled Israel’s historic commitment to settlement building, a commitment he helped advance as a minister during the rapid settlement expansion in the first Menachem Begin government, from 1977 to 1981. The United States, he said, historically opposed the settlements, but Israel forged ahead because of its strategic interests; the bilateral relationship never suffered.
The history lesson was Sharon’s way of chiding Israeli reporters who asked whether his tense joint appearance with Bush was evidence of a “crisis.”
Even if there were a crisis, Sharon said, “not every crisis needs to lead to a revolution of the soul.”
Translation: Sharon, the visionary of the settlement movement, hadn’t given up on his dreams of expanding Israel’s narrow waist and offering the country a bit of strategic depth.
It was clear even before it began that there would be tensions, and the visit might not go as well as originally had been expected. Sharon spent Sunday night at a hotel in Waco, 30 miles away, while virtually every other world leader accorded the privilege of an overnight stay in central Texas has slept in the Crawford ranch’s guest house.
A preparatory meeting Sunday night between Sharon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, at a dimly lit Waco bar-and-rib joint, stretched to two hours as Secret Service agents kept locals seeking refreshments at bay. Participants finally emerged grim-faced.
The grim looks reappeared when the negotiators stood outside Bush’s office building, watching the two leaders deliver their statements. Almost all of the negotiators adhered to a White House-imposed dress code meant to suggest unanimity — dark blue jacket, open-necked shirts the color of the Texas bluebonnets dotting the Bush ranch, and khaki trousers — but the Israelis stood to one side, the Americans to the other.
Hadley is to visit Israel next week to resume the conversation.
Bush got no relief on the specific issue that helped precipitate the recent tension: Israel’s decision to add 3,500 apartments in Ma’aleh Adumim, a major West Bank settlement and Jerusalem bedroom community that Israel intends to keep in any final peace agreement.
The development would choke off a major north-south West Bank artery. Palestinians claim this would affect the territorial contiguity of the state they hope to build, something Bush regards as critical to the success of the peace process.
Sharon turned the contiguity question around.
“We are very much interested that it will be contiguity between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem,” he said, standing alongside Bush.
There were areas of substantial agreement: Bush restated his historic concession, made last year, that Israel’s major settlements are “facts on the ground” that must be taken into account in any final peace deal.
He also agreed to consider U.S. assistance in developing the Negev and Galilee, regions of Israel that are expected to absorb thousands of evacuated settlers. A senior Israeli Treasury official is to visit Washington next week to discuss the parameters of such assistance.
Bush is biding his time until the Gaza withdrawal. Sharon laughingly told Israeli reporters that U.S. admonishments about settlement expansion took the mild parental tone of “we’ll discuss this later.”
In his recent dealings with the United States, Sharon repeatedly has stressed that he must placate a restive Israeli right wing before the settlement evacuation this summer. He spoke Monday of a “civil-war atmosphere” in Israel.
That’s something Bush appreciates, but he has his own political constraints. Bush is trying to mend alliances with Europe and the Arab world that were fractured by the Iraq War, and he believes that substantial progress on the
Israeli-Palestinian front would heal many wounds. Bush also believes that the death last year of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, removed the principal obstacle to progress.
Bush expects Sharon to change his mind once the trauma of evacuating Gaza is past. Delaying any Israeli action until the Palestinians have fulfilled all their commitments, he said, suggests “a rather pessimistic point of view.”
He glanced over at Sharon and continued, “I just suspect that if there is success in Gaza, in other words, if there’s a state that’s emerging, the prime minister will have a different attitude about whether or not it makes sense to continue the process.”