Behind the Headlines Bush-sharon Meeting Seen As Key to Improved U.s.-israel Coordination by Matthew

Ariel Sharon’s visit to Washington this week was seen as a crucial opportunity to discuss Israel’s position if the United States attacks Iraq and the effect a war might have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli prime minister’s meetings with President Bush and key administration officials did not result in the drawing of clear lines in the sand, but they did advance efforts to coordinate U.S. and Israeli actions in the event of a Mideast crisis.

“I tend to see this as the launching of consultations and guidelines for future discussions, as opposed to being anything definitive,” one analyst said.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said the meetings set the tone for future discussions on Israel’s role as the situation with Iraq develops.

“There were principles that were established at the highest level,” Ayalon told JTA. “Each side understands the needs of each other.”

The Israel daily Ha’aretz reported this week that Vice Admiral James Metzger, an assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been named a liaison to the Israeli military. The Pentagon would neither confirm nor deny the reports.

The Bush-Sharon meeting was considered important because of developments on the Iraqi front. The White House recently won congressional approval to use force, if necessary, to make Iraq stop developing weapons of mass destruction.

The United States also is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.

Relations between Washington and Jerusalem were frayed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Bush convinced Israel not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks. Many Israelis believe the decision not to retaliate undermined Israel’s deterrent posture and has encouraged further Arab attacks in the years since.

In recent weeks, key Bush administration officials again have urged Israel not to retaliate if attacked. Analysts were looking to the Washington meetings for any sign of disagreement about Israeli retaliation

Two issues were foremost on Sharon’s agenda: He was expected to tell Bush that Israel would not pledge to sit quietly if attacked by Iraq. He also was expected to ask that, after a war, the United States not pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as a way to restore Washington’s ties with the Arab world.

It’s not yet clear what understandings were reached on the two issues, but Bush sent a strong signal of support for Israel’s right to self-defense against an “unprovoked attack.”

“If Iraq attacks Israel tomorrow, I would assume the prime minister would respond,” Bush said at a news conference following the Oval Office meeting. Sharon has “got a desire to defend himself.”

A spokesman later clarified that Bush was not addressing what would happen during the “qualitatively different situation” of a U.S. war against Iraq. But analysts said Sharon’s buoyant demeanor after the meeting — he called the current U.S.-Israel relationship the best the two countries have ever had — said more than any pronouncement.

“There was no pressure, no threats and not even the most minimal crack in the bilateral relationship,” an Israeli official said. “On the contrary: We have gone up a notch in the relationship.”

Bush and Sharon also discussed the Israeli economy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a developing conflict over Lebanese plans to tap a river that provides drinking water for Israel.

“Sharon wanted to talk about the economy and wanted to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because he had good things to point out,” one Jewish official said.

Israeli officials said Bush promised Israel adequate warning of a U.S. attack on Iraq so Israel could prepare for possible Iraqi retaliation.

Last year, Israel was informed of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan 48 hours before it began. Bush administration officials stressed that more warning would be given this time.

The White House also offered reassurances that the United States would make efforts to block Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s access to weapons systems in western Iraq that could be used to strike Israel, Israeli officials said.

But the discussion also moved into other areas.

Sharon expressed a desire to distinguish between Palestinian civilians and terrorists, and to try to improve the condition of the general population while heightening Israel’s anti-terror campaign.

To that end, Sharon agreed to release some $400 million in Palestinian tax revenue that has been frozen since the intifada began two years ago. U.S. monitors will attempt to ensure that the money isn’t used to sponsor terrorism.

Sharon has resisted pressure to do more to ease the plight of the Palestinian people, claiming that the ongoing terrorist threat has made it difficult. When Israel has relaxed closures of Palestinian areas, terrorists have exploited the freedom of movement to carry out attacks.

The terror threat may escalate as the United States prepares for action against Iraq. Sharon is concerned that terrorist groups may take advantage of the U.S. pressure on Israel to tone down its anti-terror operations so as not to anger the Arab world.

At the White House meeting, Bush sent a clear message to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

“Apart from Iraq, we expect Hezbollah not to attack our friend,” Bush said. “And so we will work with Israel, and work with other nations, make it clear to them, our position on harboring terrorist activities.”

Bush announced plans to send William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, to the Middle East to work toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Burns brings with him a six-page draft “road map” for progress on that front.

Ayalon said the document “gives a little more delineation of the president’s speech” of June 24, in which Bush called for a change of Palestinian leadership and significant reform of the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinians met certain standards, they could have a state within three years, Bush said.

Ayalon said the sequencing of the roadmap is crucial, with an end to terror and a change in Palestinian leadership preceding interim negotiations and, eventually, talks on a final peace agreement.

Ayalon downplayed concerns that, after an attack on Iraq, the United States might pressure Israel to ignore the sequencing.

Some have warned that the United States will pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to improve Washington’s ties with the Arab world. But other Israelis say dethroning Saddam will hasten the overthrow of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat by showing that Middle Eastern dictators can be defeated rather than appeased.

“Once the Iraqi situation will be resolved, it may bring some positive effects on our situation indirectly,” Ayalon said. “I’m not concerned, certainly vis-a-vis the Palestinians.”

Burns is meeting this week with other officials of the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United States, the European Union, United Nations and Russia — working toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. He is expected to work on Palestinian reforms and seek to get Israel to tone down its anti-terror operations.

He also is expected to try to mediate a dispute over Lebanese plans to divert the Wazzani River, which feeds into other rivers that are crucial to Israel’s water supply.

Bush also expressed faith in the Israeli economy, acknowledging the toll two years of violence has had on Israel and praising its trading success.

Analysts saw the statements as a nod to Israel’s need for an additional $200 million in U.S. aid. Bush vetoed a bill earlier this year containing the aid provisions for unrelated reasons, but has been pushing Congress since then to pass the aid.

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