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Deal with Sharon on Gaza May End Up Haunting Bush in November

Like his “Mission Accomplished” landing aboard an aircraft carrier just after the successful U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush’s triumphal appearance with Ariel Sharon two weeks ago eventually could haunt his electoral prospects.

The historic deal between the president and the Israeli prime minister traded Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank for U.S. recognition of some Israeli claims to the West Bank and a rejection of any Palestinian refugee return to Israel.

It also cut the Palestinians out of the negotiating process for now — and that could leave the United States responsible for Gaza, a crowded, parched patch of land that successive British, Egyptian and Israeli rulers never truly mastered.

“One wonders whether Bush really appreciates what he is getting himself and the United States into,” Martin Indyk, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East official, wrote Sunday in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that concluded, “Welcome to Gaza, Mr. President.”

Kerry clearly understood the advantage when he praised Bush for the deal but — not even pausing to breathe — suggested that it was doomed to fail.

“What the president did in recognizing the issue of the ‘right of return’ and recognizing the issue of some of the settlements, really recognized the reality on the ground,” Kerry told a gathering of newspaper editors last week. “What I fault the administration for is that they haven’t done enough to create the climate within the Arab world to advance an entity within the West Bank, within the Palestinian Authority, that is capable of delivering a peace.”

Bush Administration spokesmen say the United States would assist the Palestinians in getting ready for self-rule, a commitment that would further stretch a diplomatic corps already working overtime in Iraq.

“The Palestinians have to step up to the plate and take responsibility there, have to take responsibility for preventing violence from that area, for running that area and for taking advantage of the opportunity of the Israelis pulling out of settlements,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. “It’s clear that we and others will assist them in doing that.”

It isn’t yet clear why the administration believes that the Palestinian Authority — an entity whose corruption and haplessness drove Bush to accept the Israeli prime minister’s plan — will be any more capable of handling self-rule nine months from now, when Israel says it plans to leave.

Bush’s acceptance of Sharon’s conditions for the withdrawal was rooted for the most part in the president’s profound disappointment with the Palestinians’ performance during his term.

The Palestinian Authority’s failure to track down terrorists in two cases — after a Jerusalem bus bombing last Aug. 19, and after an attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip last October — helped persuade Bush to accept Sharon’s principal condition for pulling out of Gaza: Shut the Palestinians out of the process, for now.

In addition to Bush’s conviction that something needed to be done, there also were clear electoral considerations to his agreement with Sharon.

Sharon snubbed Kerry while he was in the United States and said Bush was more committed to fighting terrorism than any other president had been. Additionally, Bush aides persuaded Israel not to take substantial steps toward a withdrawal until after the U.S. election.

The thinking was that a delay would exploit the full electoral advantage of the deal: By November, Bush still could say he had unstuck a notoriously mired peace process, but wouldn’t yet have to deal with its repercussions.

That could help — especially in the fight for Jewish votes in swing states — in what is likely to be a close election.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that for all its risks, the agreement has positives that could help Bush, especially with American Jewish voters.

“He reinforces in a major way the special bond between Israel and the U.S. and, second, he tries to demonstrate movement on the ground,” Harris said.

Still, there are signs that the buy-now, pay-later approach might have been premature: Already, there have been repercussions.

In Iraq, the top U.N. envoy to the region, Lakhdar Brahimi — a man Bush is depending on for a smooth transition — said the agreement, and Israel’s policies, were “poisoning” his work. A perception that the agreement with Sharon worsened an already deteriorating situation in Iraq could offset whatever electoral gains Bush wins among Jewish voters.

The two closest U.S. allies in the region, Jordan and Egypt, are furious. King Abdullah II of Jordan abruptly cut short a U.S. visit a day before he was to meet Bush, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — who had just met with Bush at the presidential ranch in Texas before the announcement — told Arab Americans he felt insulted by the deal.

But both countries are quietly negotiating favorable U.S. concessions for supporting the deal, and Abdullah will probably be back in May.

U.S. officials, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, now claim that U.S. recognition of Israel’s demands does not necessarily prejudge a negotiated outcome. Some commentators have noted that the U.S. commitments were vague enough to leave the Palestinians ample wiggle room in future negotiations.

“We are not prejudging any final status issues that have to be discussed between the parties,” Powell said after his meeting Tuesday with the Qatari foreign minister, one of a succession of Arab dignitaries Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage have canvassed since the Bush-Sharon summit. “All final status issues are to be mutually agreed upon by the parties.”

Such equivocations could intensify after a Likud party referendum on the deal Sunday.

“After May 2, it may emerge that Bush’s letter and commitments to Sharon were really tactical and designed to help Sharon,” said Joseph Alpher, a U.S.-Israel expert who runs bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli opinion exchange. “It’s possible that we will see backtracking; we’ve already seen damage control.”

It also wasn’t certain that the Likud would pass the deal.

“If Sharon loses the referendum, the whole disengagement is jeopardized,” Harris said.

Whatever the plan’s successes, it’s too early to say whether it will swing a significant sector of the Jewish vote, pollster John Zogby said. Zogby noted the strong Jewish turnout at a pro-choice march this weekend that turned into an anti-Bush event.

“When push comes to shove, liberalism is going to trump with Jewish voters,” said Zogby, whose polling consistently shows about 70 percent to 75 percent of Jews leaning Democratic. And, he noted, “Israel isn’t a factor because Kerry simply ‘me too’d’ ” the Bush-Sharon deal.

Kerry repeated his promise of maximum commitment to Israel in and Israel Independence Day message Tuesday.

“The people of Israel should know that our pledge to a safe and secure Jewish state is unwavering,” he said. “From this enduring friendship will always come the promise of never-ending support. Our commitment must be clear: We should never pressure Israel to compromise its security; never coerce it to negotiate for peace without a credible partner; and always work to provide the political and military support for Israel’s fight against terror.”

In fact, while Kerry and Bush might once have had fundamentally different approaches to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — with Kerry advocating multilateral involvement and Bush championing a U.S.-led approach — either man’s approach on Nov. 3 will be determined by one overwhelming factor: Iraq.

Just like Bush, “If Kerry wins, he’s going to inherit a huge commitment in Iraq, and a major occupation,” Alpher said.

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