Sharon’s ‘Message’ From The President
He didn’t exactly get a green light to remove Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat — nor did he seek one — but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came away from Washington this week with indications the Bush administration will not punish Israel if new terror attacks lead the Israeli leader to take that drastic step.
Asked directly about the possibility Sharon might “expel” Arafat from Palestinian-controlled territory, Bush did not hoist any caution flags.
“I don’t think Mr. Arafat is the issue,” he told reporters Monday. “I think the issue is the Palestinian people. And as I have expressed myself, I am disappointed that he has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence.”
The underlying message was “one more big terrorist attack, with
a lot of lives lost, and it’s good-bye Arafat,” said Robert O. Freedman, a top Mideast expert. “Arafat hasn’t stopped terrorism, and he hasn’t given even the appearance that he’s trying. So Bush is very frustrated.”
The implicit signal to Sharon: the U.S. may not officially give the nod to Arafat’s exile, but it won’t protest too hard and too long if it happens, especially after any new terror attacks.
But Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now president of the Middle East Institute, warned against reading too much into this week’s diplomatic smoke signals.
“The president certainly was very understanding of Israel’s need to defend itself against terrorism,” he said. “But I don’t think he made any implicit comments suggesting he would accept the expulsion or assassination of Arafat.”
According to other sources, Sharon did not seek Bush’s go-ahead for harsh action against Arafat but continued making the case that terrorism will not be stopped until there is new Palestinian leadership.
“Sharon is too smart to seek a direct endorsement from the president,” one longtime pro-Israel leader said, “but he wants to keep building the case so that if it happens, there won’t be a dramatic reaction in Washington.”
Bush also rejected Arafat’s claim that he has initiated genuine reforms in his Palestinian Authority, Walker said.
“There are cosmetic changes, but they do not go far enough, in terms of governance or transparency,” he said. “For many of us it is a disappointment, as it was for the president.”
On Tuesday, Sharon staged a triumphal march across Capitol Hill, where support for Israel is at an all-time, bipartisan high. His meeting with the House International Relations Committee was interrupted by an aide who informed the prime minister about the bombing in Herzliya.
Sharon also used the meetings to introduce his new ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon.
At a 45-minute meeting with Jewish lawmakers and in sessions with congressional foreign policy committees, Sharon proposed an international “peace committee” to oversee reforms in the Palestinian Authority as a precursor to statehood.
He didn’t mention his campaign to marginalize Arafat. In fact, “he spoke as if Arafat didn’t exist,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens), who attended. “He said that Israel does not have a partner for peace, but that he is hoping they will someday have one.”
How will Congress respond if Arafat is shipped back to Tunis?
“If Arafat no longer existed, there would be enough trees planted to reforest the entire Middle East,” Ackerman said.
Still, he predicted Israel would make no immediate moves to get rid of the Palestinian leader because “they are smart enough to know that Arafat would become even more popular, and that whoever replaces him would not be able to do anything Arafat didn’t approve of.”
In meetings with lawmakers, Sharon did not mention pending legislation imposing sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. He did raise the issue of an impending international peace conference.
While Sharon was the one who proposed the meeting, “he emphasized that when it comes to actual agreements with the Palestinians, there must be bilateral agreements,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx). “He made it clear Israel will accept an international conference, but not on the nitty-gritty issues.”
On Monday, President Bush threw more cold water on the idea of a conference, which the State Department continues to actively promote. In response to a question, he said the time is not right for a summit because “no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government.”
Sharon was “very relaxed,” Engel said, “and he was obviously very pleased with his reception here. He was at the top of his game.”
Despite the growing clamor for economic boycotts against Israel, Jewish officials here say it’s more bark than bite — at least for now. But Jewish groups continue to monitor the economic threats from the Arab world and in Europe, and to make sure administration policymakers pay attention to the anti-Israel noise. Israeli officials say that even haphazard boycott efforts could have a huge impact on the already weakened economy.
“We don’t see any centralized effort of the type we were familiar with in the past,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League and for years a leader in the Jewish effort against the Arab boycott. “That boycott was organized by the Arab League and carried on by individual countries with boycott lists. We’re not seeing anything on that level.”
But Arab groups increasingly are calling for boycotts of American multinational corporations in general because of U.S. support for Israel, and of specific corporations that do business in Israel.
A growing number of Web pages urge visitors to boycott specific corporations. One Islamic site in Great Britain offers a long list of potential targets, from AOL-Time Warner to Timberland, and punctuates the point with a Star of David with a slash through it.
Still, the campaign “seems to be more bluster than action,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Israel Task Force. “We don’t see it having any serious impact on these companies, although it is still potentially very serious.”
More troubling, he said is the mounting economic threat coming from outside the region.
“We are very concerned about some of the unions in Europe calling for boycotts of Israeli products, particularly in Norway,” he said. “We’re hearing similar demands from Denmark and South Africa.”
And some European nations, including Switzerland, have canceled or postponed arms purchases for Israel, a potential time bomb for the Israeli economy.
Hordes said the ADL and others have raised the alarm with administration officials. “They are very aware of the threat,” he said.
He also expressed concern that the campaign by some American Jewish activists to boycott newspapers deemed unfair to Israel could be contributing to the upsurge in interest in boycotts.
“Our view has always been that organized boycotts are not a useful way of expressing policy positions,” he said. “We’ve traditionally opposed them.”
But ultimately, it’s Arab animus toward Israel, not Jewish media boycotts, that threatens a new round of economic warfare against the Jewish state, Hordes said.
The Bush administration seems to be taking note of the increased boycott talk. This week Robert Zoellick, the top U.S. trade negotiator, on a swing through the region urged Middle Eastern nations not to take up the boycott weapon.
And Undersecretary of Commerce Kenneth Juster has warned Arab nations that his department would enforce anti-boycott laws.
Faith-Based Bill Languishing
A year ago it was the centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda. Today, the remnants of theadministration’s faith-based initiative are languishing in the Senate, and even the White House doesn’t seem much interested in getting the legislation moving again.
The biggest problem facing the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment
Act of 2002, a much-diluted faith-based compromise offered by Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.): money.
Church-state concerns are no longer an issue. Unlike a House-sponsored measure, the CARE bill in the Senate does not include “charitable choice” provisions, which would scale back restrictions on the use of government money by religious organizations that also provide health and social services.
Instead, CARE focuses only on using the tax code to spur charitable giving. As a result, most Jewish organizations that oppose charitable choice have taken a neutral stance on the new bill.
But with deficits mounting, new tax deductions would hit the treasury hard. At the same time, lawmakers in both parties are going on a spending spree, favoring corporate and special interests.
“It’s really sad,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, which supports the faith-based effort. “It has nothing to do with ideology. Each senator would rather spend the money on industry subsidies than on trying to help charities.”
The administration is no longer really pushing CARE for another reason: its energies are now focused on enacting charitable choice programs through administrative action, not legislation.
“Faith-based legislation is almost beside the point,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “The administration has come to the conclusion that they can do much more by simply issuing regulations. Some may get blocked, but a lot will get implemented because people just aren’t paying attention.”