With Sharon Sidelined, Bush Team Reaches out to Potential Successors

The Bush administration is juggling two stages of grief in dealing with the absence of Ariel Sharon: denial and acceptance. Sharon has been the premier agent of change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Bush took office. One message the administration is pushing is to deny that Sharon’s disappearance from the political scene substantively changes anything. Two top Bush administration envoys are set to fly to the region Tuesday to remind all parties that systems are still go, despite the massive stroke Jan. 4 that has kept the Israeli prime minister incapacitated and likely has ended his political career.

The other message is to accept the reality that Sharon is gone, establish the same level of trust with his deputy, Ehud Olmert, now the acting prime minister, and feel out the other two leading candidates in March 28 elections in Israel.

It’s a delicate balance for a delicate time.

The Bush administration has dramatically increased its investment in the peace process, successfully betting last year that Sharon’s longstanding reputation as Israel’s last lion of war would guide the Jewish state through its most searing peace move, evacuating Gaza Strip settlements.

In the coming year, the administration hoped Sharon would begin to evacuate substantial portions of the West Bank.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser to the White House, and David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region, would press the Palestinians to hold legislative elections as scheduled on Jan. 25, and would push Israel to open up transit points between the Gaza Strip, Israel and the West Bank.

“We all know that Prime Minister Sharon is in the hospital, and we continue to hope for his recovery,” McCormack said Monday. “There are still agreements in place that require follow-up. We are following up, as are others on implementation of those agreements.”

Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, stepped in personally in November to broker the transit agreement, and is anxious that Israel has yet to open the transit points. Israel is worried that the Palestinian Authority is not taking control of terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Yet while it’s business-as-usual on the micro level, Bush administration spokesmen make clear that they understand the tectonic political changes underway in Israel ahead of the March elections.

As Sharon’s front man on the peace process, Olmert was already a known quantity to the administration. He has spoken extensively with Rice since assuming the acting premiership. Rice canceled a planned tour of Indonesia and Australia to keep a close watch on developments in Israel.

“We stay in close contact with the government of Israel and we have officials that travel there on a fairly regular basis as well,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday. “I expect we’ll be going back there in the near future, too.”

A breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace success might purchase Arab and international goodwill and help the Bush administration navigate its other grand plan loaded with potential booby traps: the transition to democratic self-rule in Iraq.

Sharon broke away from his Likud Party late last year because it continued to defy his plans to withdraw from some Palestinian areas. He established the centrist Kadima party, bringing over leading figures from Likud and Labor.

The question is whether Olmert or his competitors — Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz — have the strength or the will to push for additional withdrawals.

“Olmert has a very solid reputation in terms of intelligence and decision making, but he’s not known to have the same personal stature and leadership skills as Sharon had,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a group that backs withdrawal. “The question is can he deliver on what will presumably be a more difficult evacuation of settlers from the West Bank.”

U.S. diplomats also have reached out to Netanyahu and Peretz, but there are even greater questions concerning how the two of them would pursue peace.

Netanyahu quit Sharon’s government over the Gaza withdrawal last summer and is not likely to campaign for further pullouts, though that could change if he wins.

In 1996, Netanyahu ran on a platform criticizing the Oslo process. Once in office, however, he eventually embraced its land-for-peace precept, though not as willingly as his Labor Party predecessors.

Peretz, by contrast, is a security and diplomacy cipher, having wrested the Labor Party leadership from Shimon Peres last year in a campaign run purely on socioeconomic issues. Peres has since backed Kadima. He has said he is committed to making peace with the Palestinians quickly, but has given few details.

“Peretz is fairly well-known within the Labor Zionist movement, but he’s not been over on speaking trips so there’s additional work to do,” Roth said. One obstacle is that Peretz reportedly has substantial difficulties communicating in English.

Some Jewish leaders said the solid U.S.-Israel relationship makes the personality of the next prime minister less important.

“The relationship is so institutionalized and so important that while each prime minister puts his own stamp on the relationship, whatever differences there are can be addressed,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

That applies not only to relations with the administration, but with the pro-Israel community as well, Hoenlein said. An official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the premier pro-Israel lobby, confirmed that.

“AIPAC has a relationship with all three men,” the official said, speaking anonymously because AIPAC avoids comment on internal Israeli politics. “They’re well-known to the leadership of the Jewish community. They’ve all expressed a desire to have a strong relationship with the United States.”

M.J. Rosenberg, policy director for the Israel Policy Forum — another group that backs withdrawal — agreed that the U.S.-Israel relationship would not be a factor in the March 28 elections.

“The only foreigners who determine what happens are the Palestinians,” Rosenberg said, referring to the Palestinian leadership’s failure to contain violence in Gaza since Israel’s withdrawal in September.

The Bush administration agrees, and persistently has pressed P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to assert control before the Palestinian elections.

“The Palestinian Authority needs to provide an atmosphere of calm and safety for the citizens of the Gaza Strip, that’s important,” McCormack said last week. “It is the primary responsibility of any government entity to provide for the welfare of its citizens in terms of safety. Clearly we don’t have that right now in Gaza.”

The message-sending doesn’t stop in Washington. The international community, embodied by the diplomatic “Quartet” guiding the Middle East peace process — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — says a Palestinian government that includes terrorists would be unacceptable.

The rush of warnings reflects widespread concern that Abbas, favored for his relative moderation, is losing control as the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in September, descends into internecine violence.

Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top envoy to the region, said continued violence against Israel also undermines Abbas’ claim that the Palestinian polity is moderating.

“Israel got out of Gaza, but Kassam rockets are still being shot out of Gaza,” Ross told JTA. “The impulse is to say, ‘What are the Palestinians doing?’ “

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