With U.s.-israel Ties on a High, Sharon Pays Another Visit to the White House

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Washington this week comes during a high point in American-Israeli relations that contrasts starkly with the depressed mood in Israel brought on by security concerns and economic woes.

Sharon finds himself in a remarkable alignment with the Bush administration, both over Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and, on a broader plane, over America’s challenge to the “axis of evil” around the world.

Still, the Palestinian intifada continues to rage, claiming more casualties this week. On Tuesday, an Israeli was seriously wounded in a shooting attack in the West Bank. That came a day after an Israeli Arab — apparently mistaken for a Jew — was injured by Palestinian gunmen as he returned from the West Bank city of Nablus, where he had been gathering evidence on alleged human rights abuses by Israel.

Most ominously, five Palestinian militants from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement were killed Monday when the car they were traveling in exploded.

Israeli officials denied involvement, but Palestinians blamed Israel for the killing and pledged to avenge the deaths with a new wave of attacks.

Sharon’s visit also comes after a Bush administration reassessment of its relations with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

President Bush has refused to invite Arafat to the White House, but he also has declined to cut ties with Arafat entirely — something Sharon is expected to lobby for when he visits the White House.

In an Op-Ed that appeared this week in The New York Times, Arafat denounced terror and said Palestinians want to live peacefully alongside Israel. The Bush administration praised the words, but kept the pressure on Arafat to translate them into action.

Sharon and his defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, dismissed the Op-Ed, saying it represented nothing new from the Palestinian leader.

Ben-Eliezer agrees with Sharon that Arafat is not a peace partner.

In New York on Tuesday, Ben-Eliezer told JTA that he plans “to press U.S. officials to open a channel of negotiations with others” in the Palestinian leadership besides Arafat.

Ben-Eliezer made a similar point to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, hours before he left for Washington for his own meeting with the Bush administration.

“Can this gentleman sit in front of us and talk peace?” he asked rhetorically, referring to Arafat. “I answer no. He is committed to the past,” while “Israel is committed to the future.”

Occurring exactly a year after he was elected, this will be Sharon’s fourth visit as prime minister to Washington, and it is expected to be his most harmonious.

Word of Sharon’s meeting last week with three top figures in the Palestinian Authority served to project his image as a moderate and peace-seeker, a far cry from the ghoulish depictions of Sharon still prevalent in much of the European and Arab press.

It remains unclear whether the meeting was a tactical maneuver before his White House visit or represented a significant change of course on Sharon’s part.

But by holding the meeting — with Palestinian parliamentary speaker Ahmed Karia, top PLO official Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Rashid — Sharon sent out several powerful, if contradictory, signals:

He indicated that Arafat is not just “irrelevant,” as the Israeli Cabinet resolved in December, but dispensable. Sharon’s tactic has been to distinguish between Arafat the man and the Palestinian Authority that he heads, which — in contrast to some on the Israeli right — Sharon never proposed to destroy or dismantle. The meeting with Arafat’s lieutenants is graphic evidence, Sharon aides say, that this goal of distinguishing between the two is achievable;

He showed that despite the rhetoric about Arafat’s “irrelevancy,” Sharon continues to do business with him in some manner. After all, the meeting took place with Arafat’s blessing, and the three Palestinians reported back to Arafat after the meeting in Sharon’s home in Jerusalem;

He showed, some argue, that his refusal to negotiate “under fire” — his mantra since taking office — is not absolute. As became apparent, the meeting ranged far beyond security issues. Sharon and his guests delved into the prime minister plan for a long-range “interim settlement” that eventually would lead to new permanent status negotiations. Defending himself from criticism, Sharon said the meeting was the first time the Palestinians finally understood the steps Israel demands before the peace process can resume. Sharon and his guests reportedly resolved to institutionalize their forum by convening once every two or three weeks;

He deflected growing criticism from Israel’s peace camp, who argue that the unity government’s tough line against the Palestinian intifada, now in its 16th month, is precluding any diplomatic horizon. Sharon’s meeting earned unaccustomed praise from the dovish leader of the opposition, Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid, who congratulated Sharon on “a good start.”

Sharon outflanked the leaders of the Labor Party, Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres, who seek to portray themselves as indispensable peacemakers alongside the hardline Sharon. Ben-Eliezer held talks at Sharm el-Sheikh last week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who still refuses to meet with Sharon. Peres is engaged in ongoing negotiations with Karia; the latest session took place in New York last week, where both men were attending the World Economic Forum. Sharon’s message — to his Palestinian interlocutors and the world — was that he alone is the Israeli address for any deal;

Sharon signaled to his American hosts that there is a distinct gap between his positions and those of his far- right hinterland: Witness the strident criticism the meeting triggered from the National Union Party and the settlers’ Yesha Council. Benjamin Netanyahu needs the support of this extremist constituency if he is to challenge Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party, while Sharon seems intent on shoring up his own high standing with Israeli centrists.

On the global agenda, Sharon’s aides are effusive in their praise of Bush’s recent State of the Union address that cited Iraq, Iran and North Korea as a worldwide “axis of evil,” and singled out Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah for criticism.

Israeli officials believe they have succeeded in impressing on Washington the gravity of the Karine A ship, which was captured Jan. 3 in the Red Sea while smuggling weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, apparently with the aid of Hezbollah operatives.

So close is the meeting of minds on the global plane between the Bush administration and Israel that some foreign observers claim to detect direct Israeli influence on American policy-making. These observers note that Israel has been hammering away for years about the dangers from Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and that the United States now appears to have adopted the same worldview.

Israeli sources deny the claim of direct influence, calling it merely a confluence of thinking by the superpower and its small Middle Eastern ally about the sources of potential danger to Western societies and world stability.

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