Sharon Gains from Bush Meeting, but Payoff for U.S. is Yet to Come

Ariel Sharon already is reaping political dividends from last week’s historic exchange of letters with President Bush, but the U.S. president’s payoff depends a great deal on what Israel does next.

The Bush administration wants to see clear signs in coming weeks that Israel will live up to the prime minister’s commitment to pull out of the Gaza Strip and a small portion of the West Bank in exchange for Bush’s recognition of Israel’s claim to part of the West Bank.

Bush’s historic endorsement of Israel’s claims — and his rejection of any “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees — have boosted Sharon’s political fortunes, allowing him to win over opponents in his Cabinet who had been skeptical of the withdrawal plan.

By contrast, the deal poses clear political risks for Bush, battered by increasing U.S. casualties in Iraq and seeking international support for a transition to civilian rule there.

The Sharon-Bush summit won’t help the transfer of power in Iraq, said Feisel Istrabadi, a constitutional adviser to the U.S.-supported governing council.

“From the perspective of American policy and helping us in Iraq, I think it was the wrong thing to do at the wrong time,” Istrabadi told PBS’ “One-on-One” show. Israeli-Palestinian tensions dog the United States’ good intentions in Iraq and elsewhere, Istrabadi said.

“It is the major bone of contention between the broad masses — I’m not talking about the radicals, but the broad masses of the Arab and Islamic world and the United States,” he said.

Administration officials said matters were worsened by Israel’s assassination Saturday of Hamas’ new leader, and the predictable conspiracy theories in the Arab world accusing the United States of approving the hit.

“Certainly, given that we had just talked about trying to get the ‘road map’ under way in the Middle East, trying to get the Gaza disengagement plan under way, then the timing is not helpful,” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, told ABC’s “This Week” over the weekend. The “road map” is an internationally-backed peace plan.

The State Department went further, suggesting that the killing of Abdel Aziz Rantissi showed a lack of sophistication.

Putting Hamas out of business is “a much more complicated question than just assassinating a leader here and there,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. “The idea of putting them out of business really does require somebody else to take authority in these areas.”

The “somebody else” Boucher alluded to underscored an emerging U.S.-Israel schism. A senior Israeli official described the plan as a “mortal blow” to the Palestinians’ maximalist aspirations, while President Bush sees the plan as facilitating Palestinian empowerment.

The U.S. deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, is in the region this week, explaining that last week’s deal only enhances Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state as the outcome of negotiations.

“Our desire was to sit down and talk to people about moving forward, about how to make withdrawal from Gaza contribute to overall progress on the road map and toward the president’s vision, that we have been engaging Arab leaders and Arab governments in those discussions,” Armitage said.

That means that Washington wants to see concrete Israeli actions, and U.S. officials are not likely to be assuaged by a senior Israeli official’s pledge last week to “establish committees” to examine how to withdraw.

The president wants to “jump-start progress on the road map,” a senior administration official said last week. “Sharon has also talked about continuing to move toward a settlement freeze, getting rid of unauthorized outposts.”

A letter to Rice from Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s bureau chief, pledges to produce within a month a list of outposts to be dismantled within the next month.

One sign that Sharon understands Bush’s need for immediate results was the Israeli commitment to dismantle 28 outposts and remove about 240 settlers within the next few weeks. Televised pictures of Israeli soldiers removing settlers from their homes on rocky West Bank hills would help make Bush’s case that his words produce action.

Israeli officials also have promised swift action in easing restrictions on Palestinians’ movement.

Despite such positive signs, there were other hints of U.S.-Israel differences over the new package. Two items in the Weisglass letter already are producing sharply divergent interpretations in Washington and Jerusalem:

Americans see “restrictions on settlement growth” as a freeze, while Israeli officials are looking for opportunities to build within settlements they now believe they have a license to keep.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wants Israel to return money it grabbed in an anti-terrorist raid on Palestinian banks in February to a Palestinian Authority finance system Powell believes is showing accountability. Senior Israeli officials say they have no intention of returning the funds.

Sharon has sympathy for Bush’s political needs ahead of what is likely to be a close election in November. His remarks at the White House press conference last week were taken as a strong endorsement of Bush, and that may help the president’s prospects among Jewish voters who play a crucial role in swing states.

“In all these years, I have never met a leader as committed as you are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists,” Sharon said at the press conference.

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