How serious is Bush-Sharon rift?

WASHINGTON, June 27 (JTA) — After the administrations of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon enjoyed an extended honeymoon, the United States is nudging Israel toward resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians much sooner than Sharon would like.

The first major disagreement between Sharon and Bush, the product of diverging interests and tactics, emerged during the Israeli premier’s visit this week.

Middle East analysts say the public scrap between the two is significant — and was welcomed by the Palestinian Authority — but does not indicate a major break between Israel and its strongest ally.

At issue is whether a “cease-fire” in the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israel really means a cessation of firing, or merely a reduction.

A plan brokered earlier this month by CIA Director George Tenet calls for the two sides to declare a cease- fire, enter a “cooling-off” period — during which each side makes confidence-building gestures — and then resume diplomatic negotiations.

American officials acknowledge that violence has eased in recent days, and want to move toward the cooling-off period. Israel — which has suffered more than 100 attacks in the two weeks of the cease-fire — says it is an oxymoron to speak of reducing violence to “acceptable” levels.

Back are the familiar dilemmas of the Clinton-era peace process: whether Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat must make an intangible “100 percent effort” to curtail Palestinian terror — as the United States wants — or must produce “100 percent results,” which Sharon says is the true measure of Arafat’s determination.

Media in the United States and Israel trumpeted news of a Bush-Sharon break after their meeting in the White House on Tuesday, but analysts said the rift is not all that great.

Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, said such differences are “par for the course.”

“They are both trying to walk a tightrope that allows them to try to find a middle ground,” Smerling said. While the two parties may argue on “tactical maneuvers,” he said, they still are in sync on larger issues.

The Bush administration’s role in the conflict has grown in recent weeks since Tenet went to the region. That effort, coupled with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s current trip, has made it more important for the United States to look successful.

The key problem is that the United States and Israel want different things, said Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“When you institute a cease-fire, you start a clock to getting to the next step,” Bryen said. But while the United States would like to move past the cooling-off period and onto the confidence-building measures — such as a freeze on Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — Israel wants to move more slowly.

The Palestinian Authority is demanding that peace talks and confidence-building measures begin immediately, even before violence has fully ceased. Only by showing the public what they have gained from their uprising can Palestinian leaders convince them to lay down their weapons, they contend.

However, given Arafat’s rejection of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s sweeping offers at Camp David and subsequent talks — and the past nine months of violence — most Israelis are skeptical that Arafat is serious about moving from war to peace. Many deride Arafat’s recent cease-fire call as a tactical maneuver rather than a real change of heart. Only an extended period of quiet will restore a modicum of faith, they say.

The United States, which is afraid that Israeli-Palestinian violence could destabilize the entire region, is more willing than Israel to give the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt.

“Their timelines don’t mesh,” Bryen said of the United States and Israel. “And we don’t have the patience in the United States to wait out the problem.”

An Israeli official in Washington said the differences between the two allies are only about semantics.

“Both sides believe that the current level of violence does not constitute a cease-fire,” the official said. “When there is 100 percent effort, there will be concrete changes on the ground.”

Some have speculated that the disagreement this week was timed to placate Arab countries — who have complained that the Bush administration is too cozy with Sharon — ahead of Powell’s visit to the region.

However, just before arriving in Israel from Egypt on Wednesday, Powell said that only Sharon can decide when the level of violence is low enough to resume peace talks.

Sharon “is seeking absolute quiet,” Powell said, contrasting it with Bush’s call to reduce tensions to “a realistic level of violence, something that makes it clear to all sides that there has been a change, that the cycle of violence has been broken.”

Some analysts believe the Bush administration is creating conditions that Arafat is more willing to accept. Palestinian officials on Tuesday circulated a memorandum of talking points for their meetings with Powell, in which they say Israel is unreasonable to demand that Palestinian attacks cease completely.

“The United States is doing its best to seize the moment, knowing it won’t last and might not come again for a long time,” Smerling said.

“It’s going to make it harder for the secretary to get Arafat to come on board if there is zero flexibility,” from the Israeli side, agreed Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and now president of the Middle East Institute. “Being able to see different ways to getting to the same point isn’t a bad thing.”

Some have speculated that Sharon is unwilling to implement later parts of American-sponsored peace programs — such as the settlement freeze — and is making stringent demands of the Palestinians to prevent the process from resuming.

Walker said he doesn’t think Sharon’s comments are mere rhetoric — he said he has never seen Sharon take a different stance privately than publicly — but Sharon will have to make tough decisions of his own if Arafat indeed begins to arrest terrorists and destroys weapons, as the Tenet plan demands.

That opinion, however, is not universal.

“Sharon needs a real cease-fire, because he took a calculated risk by not retaliating,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Sharon has come under heavy criticism from his right-wing constituents — and an unenforced cease-fire will only heighten calls for retaliation.

Given what is at stake, Hoenlein said he thinks it is very important for the United States and Israel to be on the same page.

“The United States is saying that one or two killings is not enough to stop moving forward,” Hoenlein said. “If they keep that position, they will have problems.”

Indeed, Israeli right-wingers warn, if America gives Arafat wiggle room on this cease-fire — as Clinton officials admit they did on the Palestinian Authority’s other peace process obligations — they will ensure that the Palestinians will never renounce violence completely.

Though the current disagreement made international headlines, it may pale in comparison to what’s in store if the Bush administration concludes that Arafat has toed the line, but Sharon continues to seek a quieter front.

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