Posted on March 26, 2001 in Washington Watch

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Washington feeling somewhat satisfied and emboldened. The goals he had set for the visit had been modest.

First and foremost he had wanted to be accepted as rehabilitated. After all, this was the only Israeli leader America had loved to hate. He had been reviled for his involvement in the invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. His settlement policy had earned him the rebuke of every U.S. President from Carter to Bush. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had once referred to Sharon, himself, as an “obstacle to peace.” And it was no secret that Clinton and Sharon did not have a good relationship.

In this area Sharon succeeded. He received an enthusiastic welcome from AIPAC (the largest pro-Israel lobby) and his meetings with U.S. leaders, from President Bush on down, from all accounts, went quite well.

Sharon also sought to buy time and not be pressured to engage the Palestinians in peace talks. Here, too, he succeeded. In part, because the current Administration has not yet defined its Middle East policy beyond noting that it rejects the approach and framework developed by President Clinton and because no one in official Washington knows how to advance peace in the midst of the current violence, they have adopted the general position that the U.S. “will facilitate not force” the search for peace. This has led to the now oft stated refrain that “the violence must first be reduced” and “the parties, themselves, must reengage.”

All of this, Sharon, interpreted, as acceding to his position.

The Israeli Prime Minister also sought to separate out the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and the Middle East peace process. And, here too, he had a modicum of success. At the Pentagon, in particular, Sharon’s focus on the need for U.S.-Israeli cooperation in developing a missile defense system and containing terror, was well received.

At the more global thinking State Department, on the other hand, policy makers expressed concern that continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence and the worsening situation faced by Palestinians under occupation does damage to the United States’ broader regional goals. Here, and at the White House, therefore, Sharon received some words of caution: no unilateral acts, no acts of provocation, ease up on the military and economic siege of the Palestinians and don’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Finally, Sharon sought to establish and have accepted his world view that the United States and Israel are sole partners in a struggle against common enemies seeking to create instability.

In this context, the Prime Minster warned about an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian axis that could use terror and that had the potential of developing weapons of mass destruction. He additionally sought to have Palestinian President Arafat placed firmly in the same camp, as a source of instability and terror. But he didn’t stop there. He also encouraged his friends in Congress to take action against Egypt as an additional danger to Israel and peace. In this context, Sharon was singing off the same page as his Likud predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in turn, had simply read back to the hawks in Washington the very paper they prepared for him.

It should be recalled that in 1996, when Netanyahu made his first visit to Washington, he utilized the ideas from a briefing paper that had been prepared for him by a group of U.S. neo-conservatives. Netanyahu’s message to his friends in a right-wing led U.S. Congress spoke of a new U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, based on ending the peace process, de-legitimizing the Palestinian Authority and isolating Arab states that do not accept this vision. It was a vision of a new Middle East cold war–”us versus them.” These were the Netanyahu themes echoed by Sharon during this visit.

Among hawks in the Administration and in Congress these ideas were well received. In part, one might add, because they had written them. In fact, one of the authors of this notorious 1996 paper has just been tapped as the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

The response from Congress, to at least part of this message, has been immediate. Already some leading Senators and Congressmen are circulating letters to President Bush urging the him to reassess the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians by declaring them a terrorist group and closing down the PLO office in Washington. There are also suggestions of some anti-Egyptian initiatives as well.

In all probability, the Administration itself will not succumb to these efforts. Policy makers want to protect the U.S.-Egyptian relationship and preserve relations with the Palestinians. It was interesting to note that while the Israeli press had Sharon boasting that President Bush had agreed to his demand not to meet with Arafat, the White House was quick to refute this notion. A White House spokesperson said that, in fact, the matter was never raised and that the United States was engaged in a conversation with the Palestinians (noting Secretary Powell’s visit with President Arafat) and that, in fact, Bush would schedule meetings with leaders when he was ready.

And so, in the end, Sharon’s visit was not a total success. Where there were low expectations, they were met. He was well received and there were no diplomatic flaps. His supporters had already paved the way for his efforts to decry Palestinian violence and so that, too, was an objective easily accomplished. He did not want to be pushed into concessions for peace and here too he was successful.

But with regard to his broader objective of developing a common understanding of the Middle East, here his success was more limited. Certainly he has allies, some in the Administration and some in Congress, and they will create an intense debate during the coming months. But there are others in the Administration who have a broader vision. It was from this quarter that Sharon heard notes of caution and restraint.

At the end of the day, the Sharon who came to Washington was not a new reincarnation. He was the same old hawk. If the path he proposed were to be followed, it would lead the United States to disastrous isolation. It would not create stability, but its opposite. And it would weaken U.S. allies and damage important U.S. interests. This much is understood by the more thoughtful minds in the Administration. What they are still looking for is a way out of the morass of the current conflict and a way back to the search for peace.

And so now Washington is awaiting the outcome of the Arab summit and the coming of Egypt’s President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Their messages will provide critical balance. It will be their task to engage the Administration in a discussion of the United States’ broader Middle East interests, in the need for a comprehensive peace, and in the importance of a balanced U.S. role in pursuit of both objectives. Sharon brought one message. It will be up to Arab leaders to bring the message of peace and the way to achieve it.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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