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Sharon Tries to Show Washington That Arafat, Saudis Not to Be Trusted

May 8, 2002
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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to the United States this week with a mission: to paint a different picture for the Bush administration and the American public about Israel’s once and, perhaps, future peace partners.

Israel wanted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to be seen as a leader who has reneged on past agreements, has chosen violence over peace, cannot be trusted — and thus can’t be a player in future political negotiations.

The Israeli delegation also wanted to paint Saudi Arabia as an accomplice to terrorism — based on evidence of its funding to groups like Hamas and payments to the families of suicide bombers — rather than the leader in a push for peace.

“Our interest is to say things that if we won’t say, nobody else will,” Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, said Tuesday through a translator.

With a tentative diplomatic opening emerging after 19 months of violence, Sharon’s strategy was important because it could influence the contours of any future peace talks.

But even after his meeting with President Bush on Tuesday, it’s too early to tell whether the Israeli premier succeeded.

The two leaders met just after an apparent suicide bombing at a banquet hall south of Tel Aviv.

At least 15 people were killed and 51 injured in the attack, the first inside Israel since the country withdrew most of its forces from the West Bank after a campaign to root out terrorists.

Bush and Sharon were informed of the attack during their meeting, at which point Bush “registered disgust,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said.

Because of the attack, Sharon cancelled scheduled meetings with Congressional leaders and his Wednesday engagements and was to return to Israel on Tuesday night.

When Bush emerged from the meeting and was asked whether Sharon should negotiate with Arafat, he said, “I’m never going to tell my friend the prime minister what to do.”

Bush also announced that he was sending CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East to help with the construction of “a unified security force” in the Palestinian territories.

Israel has long said that the multiplicity of forces, which Arafat encourages, contributes to the general lawlessness and lack of accountability.

Bush also said he hoped Arab states would work on reforming the Palestinian leadership “as soon as possible.”

For his part, Sharon said after the meeting that it was premature to discuss a Palestinian state until there were real reforms among the Palestinians.

Sharon’s efforts came just weeks after Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists were basking in their bond with the administration.

But the tide seems suddenly to have turned.

Many pro-Israel forces in the Jewish community and Congress are worried that the new momentum could lead to undue pressures on Israel.

Bush’s meeting late last month in Crawford, Texas, with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, just two days after the end of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, changed the focus back to the leadership role that relatively moderate Arab states could play in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some argue that Bush is not working from a clear playbook, but rather is following the advice of the last person he speaks to. Therefore, a productive meeting with the Saudi Arabian leader has led to several weeks of tough White House talk toward Israel.

Until the Crawford meeting, many Israel backers had thought that Bush strongly backed Israel’s positions, but recent events have shown that the convergence is not so close.

Bush seems to have a new interest in using the Saudi peace initiative — which calls on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all land won in the 1967 Six- Day War — as the backbone of future negotiations.

Bush also reprised his earlier tough comments demanding an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.

Israel withdrew from virtually all the areas it invaded in late March in response to a wave of terror attacks, but remained in Bethlehem while negotiators tried to finalize a deal for the release of Palestinian gunmen who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity.

In addition, the United States and Europe brought increasing pressure on Israel to allow Arafat to leave his Ramallah headquarters.

Israel also was severely criticized for refusing to allow a U.N. fact-finding team to investigate Israel’s attack on terrorists in the Jenin refugee camp.

Even while Congress was passing bills last week in solidarity with Israel, the Bush administration was emphasizing a more international approach.

Russia, the European Union and the United Nations joined U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in announcing an international peace conference for early this summer.

Taken together, the developments have led Israeli officials and many American Jewish leaders to conclude that the peace process was being pushed at the clip that Arab states demanded.

The main problem, critics said, is that the timetable toward political negotiations was cut, with the White House now calling for negotiations to begin alongside security talks, rather than after a cease-fire has been reached.

For his part, Sharon, armed with his own proposals, sought to curb the diplomatic momentum to a level that — given the last months of violence and the doubts about Arafat’s credibility — he considered more realistic.

David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said an immediate political dialogue was necessary to move forward.

“You’re not going to have sustained security unless you have a political process,” Satterfield told the Anti-Defamation League’s leadership conference on Monday.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, charged that the Bush administration was changing the rules of the game to please the Arab world.

“We set forth the parameters and the Saudis say no, and Arafat says no, and Egypt says no, and we keep changing the parameters,” Foxman said.

“I no longer hear the Tenet and Mitchell formula in sequence,” he said, referring to the U.S. proposals for a cease-fire leading to political negotiations that had been framing U.S. policy.

Few believe the Arab states will persuade the United States to push Israel all the way back to the pre- 1967 borders, but a real understanding of the Bush administration’s “line in the sand” has yet to emerge.

“This is a moment of flux,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “All these groups are trying to fill that vacuum, and it might take time to sort it out.”

The Bush administration says it is speaking to a diverse collection of leaders in order to formulate a strategy. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister was in Washington on Monday and Jordan’s King Abdullah was to meet with Bush on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in media interviews and meetings with administration officials, Sharon’s entourage worked on a multipronged approach.

Top on their list was the effort to discredit Arafat as a potential peace partner.

The Israelis unveiled a 103-page document, mainly of evidence captured during Israel’s anti-terror sweep in March and April, linking Arafat to suicide bombings and other terrorist activities.

Their goal was to convince the Bush administration that Arafat cannot be treated as a partner for peace, and that Israel will negotiate only when someone else represents the Palestinians.

“A responsible Palestinian Authority that can advance the cause of peace should not be dependent on the will of one man,” Sharon said Monday at the ADL conference.

For its part, the administration recognizes the need for better government “within the Palestinian Authority than what we have,” a senior administration official said, without mentioning Arafat by name.

Israeli leaders are encouraging the rebuilding of the Palestinian infrastructure, fueled in part by the United States, with the hope that a revived Palestinian economy may lead to changes in political leadership.

While Sharon may not convince the United States to bypass Arafat, it was clear that Israel will regard with extreme skepticism any new commitments that Arafat makes.

“Israel cannot tell the Palestinians who their leaders are,” Makovsky said. “But at the same time, if the leader is Arafat, Israel cannot be expected to trust any promises about the future.”

Israel also hoped to influence the Bush administration’s view of Saudi Arabia.

Israeli officials visiting Washington tried to persuade media outlets that the Saudi government was financing Hamas and the families of suicide bombers.

“If Saudi policy is to finance suicide bombers, then they probably cannot be part of the peace coalition,” said Limor Livnat, Israel’s education minister.

But Livnat refused to implicate the Saudi government specifically, saying only that “the documents speak for themselves.”

Saudi officials denied the Israeli claims.

The senior administration official said very little of the Bush-Sharon meeting dealt with the Israeli documents tying Arafat or the Saudis to terrorism.

Israeli officials also tried to minimize the amount of outside influence in the proposed international conference on the Middle East, hoping to remove the United Nations and European Union — both of which it considers implacably anti-Israel — from the equation.

Sharon has produced his own peace plan and suggestions for a regional conference, calling for buffer zones between Israeli and Palestinian land, and demanding that Palestinian violence cease before any political deal is implemented.

The administration did not seem to buy into the drive to sideline the European Union and United Nations. The international conference would not be like the 1991 Madrid peace conference, but would be an opportunity for the parties to discuss how to move forward, the senior administration official said.

Though both Israeli and American officials stress the bond between their countries, their paths seem to be diverging.

But the Bush administration also is coming under pressure from Congress.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported bills last week expressing solidarity with Israel, and have been expressing concerns about Arafat and Saudi Arabia that mirror the Israeli arguments.

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