WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (JTA) – The election of Ariel Sharon in Israel is likely to bring a new dynamic to the relationship between the United States and one of its strongest allies.
In contrast to the close engagement that characterized U.S.-Israeli relations over the past eight years, the new administrations in Jerusalem and Washington are likely to pursue, at least in the short term, a hands-off approach toward each other.
With his Likud Party back in power, Sharon is less likely to seek active engagement from the U.S. government. And President Bush, settling into his own new administration, is less likely to want to give it.
“I think the new administration’s attention is specifically and intentionally elsewhere,” Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said referring to the Bush administration.
Bush’s announced agenda has been almost entirely domestic. His Middle East agenda has focused largely on Iraq, rather than on the failed Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations.
Most analysts believe that because of Sharon’s reputation as a military leader who opposes concessions to the Palestinians, he will be greeted by the Bush administration and by Congress with respect, but cautious pessimism.
It is too early to tell if the cordial relations that are likely to appear in the first few days and weeks will evolve into cooperation or confrontation, which was the case the last time a Republican administration in Washington – under the elder George Bush – faced a Likud government in Israel led by Yitzhak Shamir.
Much will be determined by events on the ground: What kind of government will Sharon form? Will Israeli-Palestinian peace talks disintegrate into all-out confrontation? What policies will the Israeli premier pursue in fighting Palestinian violence?
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States will wait and see whether Sharon is able to form a government and whether it incorporates members of the Labor Party.
The first test of the relationship between the two leaders may come when Sharon first comes to the United States and the Bush team must decide whether to invite him to the White House.
“They may be hesitant giving him the red carpet, but they are going to give him a chance,” Makovsky said.
President Bush called Sharon on Tuesday to congratulate him and tell him he looked forward to working with him, “especially with regard to advancing peace and stability in the region.”
“The United States has worked with every leader of Israel since its creation in 1948,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.
“Our bilateral relationship is rock solid, as is the U.S. commitment to U.S. security.”
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell signaled Tuesday that while the Bush administration would not be “standoffish” with regard to Middle East peace, it would view it “in a broad regional context so that the quest doesn’t stand alone in and of itself.”
He also said he expected to visit the Middle East and Persian Gulf and Europe later this month.
He also urged calm in the Arab world.
“This is the time to be patient, give the winner the opportunity to decide what kind of government will be formed” and to “refrain from any acts that would lead to violence,” Powell said on Tuesday.
For its part, the Arab world, say Arab analysts, will be watching the United States’ interaction with Sharon.
It will be looking to see if the Bush administration will break from what they see as one-sided policies during the last eight years, said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago.
“I think, because of his record, Sharon will probably be held to a different standard than another Israeli government,” Khalidi said. “If the Bush administration looks carefully at the mood of the Arab world in the last five or six months, they will listen to the anger that has permeated Arab opinions.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli Embassy said it was already working with official Washington to make sure that the new prime minister would “receive general support.”
Just minutes after Sharon was elected on Tuesday, Mark Regev, a spokesman at the Israeli Embassy, said, “There are lots of biased and partisan selective histories of Sharon.
“It’s very important to get the true picture of Sharon out there.”
Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, said Sharon will use his personal skills to reach out to both the Israeli public and the United States leadership.
Smerling predicted Sharon will attempt to soften his public image, much as he did while campaigning the last few months, from that of a military leader responsible for Israel’s engagement in Lebanon to that of an elder statesman.
Some analysts said it will be easier for Sharon coming into power with a new Republican administration, as opposed to one too closely tied to the Clinton administration’s investment in the peace process.
Sharon’s reception in Congress, however, could be a mixed bag.
On one hand, Congress as a whole tends to be supportive of the State of Israel, passing large annual aid packages to the Jewish state and issuing resolutions such as supporting Jerusalem as its capital.
Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations predicted that Sharon will have strong support, at least early on, from key religious conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
These Republicans, he said, had embraced hard-line Israeli politics when Clinton took office as a weapon with which to criticize the Democratic president.
But many members of Congress have also been strong advocates of the peace process, and some may be less inclined to support an Israeli leader that takes a tougher line on concessions for peace and is still seen by some to be the spark that set off the latest wave of Palestinian violence.
Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a strong proponent of the Middle East peace process, said his former colleagues will be “skittish and very apprehensive” about the new Israeli leader.
“The balance of sentiment in Congress is pro-Israel pretty strongly and they will stay that way,” Lautenberg said. “But I don’t know, if you measured it in degrees, whether it will be the same as in the past.”
While most lawmakers are proponents of the peace process, Lautenberg said a majority will defer to the will of the Israeli people.
“If that’s what they want right now, what alternative does Congress have?” he said. “We in the United States will have to determine what support we give him by how committed we are to Israel.”
At least one former Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was successful in reaching out directly to Congress, and analysts and pro-Israel activists say Sharon will have to do the same.
Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, said that meetings have already started between the Sharon government and officials in both the White House and in Congress.
“One can’t overstate the importance of personal relations in diplomacy,” Kohr said. “And it’s critical on Capitol Hill.
“Members of Congress want the attention as well, and they have an expectation about having a relationship with someone that they intuitively know is one of our closest allies.”
AIPAC officials have gone on the offensive in recent weeks, seeking to educate lawmakers in the new Congress about the facts on the ground and the causes of the latest casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An official of a major Jewish organization said it is becoming clearer that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in late September was not the cause of the violence, and that lawmakers who are less familiar with the situation in the Middle East must be taught that.
“Ariel Sharon does not come into power without significant baggage, no one can deny that,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But, he said, it is more important to focus on the situation that brought him to power – specifically Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s refusal to agree to concessions made in the last phases of the peace process.
It is still too early to predict how the view from Capitol Hill will affect aid to Israel and other legislative issues important to the Jewish state.
Foreign aid has often been a contentious issue in the budget process and pro-Israel activists have had to fight hard in recent years – for a variety of reasons – for Israel’s nearly $3 billion in annual U.S. aid.
A senior Democratic congressional aide said that with a new administration in the White House and the possibility of a small foreign operations budget allocation, getting this year’s appropriation through Congress may be the toughest in years.
Feelings about the new Israeli government could further complicate that process, this aide said.
But a senior GOP congressional aide predicted Congress would stand behind the choice of the Israeli people, saying there has to be an enormous level of frustration among the Israeli people because of the Palestinian violence.
Siegman, too, said any effort to end or drastically reduce aid to Israel would encounter “strong resistance” from both Democrats and Republicans.
AIPAC’s Kohr said his lobbying organization is not taking any votes for granted in Congress, but remains confident that the pro-Israel lawmakers will continue their support despite hesitancy about the new leadership.
“There’s going to be an overwhelming willingness here, because it’s Israel, to work with the leader of Israel, no matter who it is,” Kohr said.
(JTA staff writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.)