April 30, 2003
‘Map’ Puts Pressure on Bush and Sharon
With a new Palestinian government almost ready to roll, the Bush administration may be in the uncomfortable position of getting exactly what it asked for.
But that's nothing compared to the potential conflicts facing Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, who now may have to make the "painful concessions" he promised but never described. That means potential conflict with right-wing coalition partners, who want no concessions, painful or otherwise.
Both leaders will face a tangle of competing pressures if Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) succeeds in driving Yasser Arafat to a richly deserved marginalization. And right in the middle is an ambivalent, worried American Jewish community.
The Bush administration starts a new round of Mideast diplomacy with a strong hand, thanks to its successful military action in Iraq and weak opposition at home. For months, it has resisted strong European and Arab pressure to publish the international "road map," laying out plans for Palestinian statehood in two years, but Arafat's reluctant acceptance last week of Abbas' Cabinet means the heat is on for new U.S. initiatives in the region.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will start a major Mideast swing; President Bush has indicated he might invite Abbas to the White House, ending a U.S. boycott of the top Palestinian leadership.
Adding to the pressure is Bush's desire to help British Prime Minister Tony Blair and heal the diplomatic breach with other E.U. countries. Arab leaders are telling the administration that the Iraq victory will produce little lasting change in the region if it is not followed by strong U.S. leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian front -- a compelling argument to a president bent on regional transformation.
There will be strong countervailing pressures, but probably not enough to slow down any new U.S. initiative.
Pro-Israel groups have been working overtime to generate congressional resistance. Hundreds of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter urging the administration to refocus its plans on several key principles of the president's June 24, 2002, speech, most notably the demand for an end to terror before new negotiations begin. But it's one thing to sign a broadly worded letter; something very different to knock heads with a determined, powerful president.
Right-wing Jews will squawk, but a majority of Jews support the basic goals of the road map. Even a modest administration squeeze on Sharon will affect relatively few Jewish votes. There will also be loud opposition to the road map from many conservative Christian leaders, but they are politically wedded to this administration -- especially since the president is giving them so much on the domestic side.
More telling could be skepticism from the Pentagon, which is locked in a fierce ideological struggle with the State Department. Senior Defense Department officials are especially irked that the road map could give the French and the United Nations an enhanced Mideast role that their recent actions do not merit.
But that could just mean that Bush, eager to capitalize on his Iraq triumph, may recast the road map's ideas as a U.S. initiative. One thing is clear: political pressure at home won't be enough to stop him.
Sharon faces a more treacherous tangle of political pressures. Support for peace negotiations remains high in Israel, but his government is dependent on right-wing parties that will not tolerate the settlements freeze and rapid progress toward Palestinian statehood that are key elements of the road map.
But Sharon, who like Bush made Palestinian reform a condition of renewed negotiations, will be hard pressed to put them off if Abbas begins cracking down on the violence. Sharon may soon have to choose between the wrath of Washington or the disintegration of his coalition. That's why he may act quickly on the Labor Party's renewed interest in joining his government.
There's another wild card in the deck. Radical groups like Hamas will try to use new terror to relieve the diplomats of the uncomfortable responsibility of diplomacy, as they have done so many times in the past. But if Abbas succeeds in cracking down on terror, Sharon may be deprived of one of his strongest moves on the diplomatic game board: delay.
American Jews could get caught in the middle.
Since the Bush inauguration in 2001, pro-Israel groups have been spared any real confrontation with the Bush administration over Mideast policy, thanks to one man: Yasser Arafat. If Arafat's power wanes and Abbas begins moving toward genuine reform and forward-looking diplomacy, that could change quickly.
The position of Jewish groups could be particularly awkward, because the likeliest source of any early U.S.-Israel friction is the issue of settlements. In a confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem over the issue, most big pro-Israel groups will defend Sharon -- a position that could generate a backwash of pressure from the Jewish grass roots, which has never shown much enthusiasm for defending settlements.