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Sharon Saved from Threat of Peace

by ALUF BENN

It used to be said about Yitzhak Shamir that he wanted to wake up in the morning and see newspaper headlines saying, “The threat of peace has been lifted.” All the signs now point to Ariel Sharon approaching the accomplishment that the former Likud premier dreamt of. The “window of opportunity” for renewing the peace process, opened after the war in Iraq, has been slammed shut. The efforts for a political deal have once again given way to the routine of managing the conflict, with Israel controlling the territories, and all the settlements in place.

U.S. President George Bush has returned to the White House from his Texas vacation a much weakened leader, struggling to save his job. The lightning victory in Iraq has turned into the mud of occupation, regime chaos and mass terror attacks. The 2004 election campaign, which up until recently looked like a stroll to a second term, now looks like a battle for political survival. Internal polls taken by the Republicans show Bush could lose to the Democratic Party’s candidate.

While trying to avoid the fate of his father, a single-term president, Bush has to fight and win on two fronts. On the foreign policy front, he has to show achievements in Iraq and even Afghanistan, to justify his “global war on terror.” Domestically, he has to keep his power base. Both political parties in the United States have already decided that their strategies will be to preserve their traditional voter base instead of trying to court floating voters.

To win the elections, Bush needs the money, energy and organizational capabilities of his friends in the Christian right and the Jewish community, strongholds of support for Israel. And to win in Iraq he needs help from his Arab friends. Only the Arab states can grant legitimacy and economic encouragement to the puppet regime that is going up in Baghdad. The big winner apparently will be Syrian President Bashar Assad, who will win a “presidential pardon” for his support of Palestinian terror and Hezbollah, in exchange for helping rehabilitate trade with Iraq. The Israeli defense establishment’s hopes that the American cannon in Iraq would turn on Syria, Hezbollah and Iran were overly optimistic.

As far as the administration is concerned, the results of that accounting will be keeping a safe distance from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and de facto shelving of the road map, even if they continue paying lip service to it. A weakened Bush will find it difficult to pressure the Jews and Arabs, whose support he needs. He will also be careful not to take the risk of a political effort that has so far given him only failure and disappointment.

The caution is already blowing from the White House. The number of trips to the region by senior officials has dropped, and there are no signs of any urgency in their handling of the collapse of the hudna. Washington’s ability to “press the Palestinians” to fight terror is pretty limited. After all the stories about “aggressive messages” and “threats to Dahlan,” the administration has been forced to change direction and try to save Abbas’ collapsing government so at least he remains with the hollow title.

It is difficult to believe that anyone expects “the terror infrastructures to be dismantled.” The administration will make do with a request to the sides that they not exaggerate their escalations, to stay out of the way of the American efforts in Iraq.

As far as Sharon is concerned, it is difficult to think of better news. The prime minister may have spoken of a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation, but his proposals to the Palestinians have been like an attempt to buy a Kfar Shmaryahu mansion for the price of a Amidar housing project apartment, and to demand the house be renovated before the negotiations even begin (and even that doesn’t have a majority in the Likud central committee). In practice, Sharon has done everything possible to rebuff political dialogue, repeatedly toughening his conditions for opening the talks while deepening Israel’s grip on the territories.

Just like Shamir–but with one big difference. Sharon understood that he shouldn’t clash with Washington, and a polite no is better than a determined one. That’s how he managed to rebuff “the threat of peace” and even win praise from the Americans.

ALUF BENN writes for Ha’aretz.

 

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