When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits Washington next week, it's no surprise what will be on the agenda.
The White House will try to assure Sharon that the United States will do all it can to protect Israel in case of a U.S. attack on Iraq, administration officials said.
It's not just out of concern for the Jewish state. The Bush administration fears that an Iraqi attack on Israel -- and an Israeli response -- could fracture a U.S. coalition against Iraq, and spark a larger, regional conflict.
Sharon will meet with Bush Oct. 16, and is expected to hold other senior-level meetings in Washington. He canceled expected meetings with Jewish leaders in New York so that he can return home sooner, in light of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence.
American officials have said recently that they want Israel to sit quietly if attacked. Given the resistance from Jerusalem -- and the potential volatility of the issue -- the United States is likely to draw up attack plans with an eye to minimizing Saddam's ability to strike Israel.
"We're going to try and make it a moot point," one administration official said. "We're very focused on Saddam's willingness to draw others into the conflict."
Among the issues under discussion in Washington are plans to attack Iraq's Scud missile launchers and bases, especially in western parts of the country closest to Israel.
Bush administration officials said Israel, concerned about the lack of input into attack plans, asked for the Sharon-Bush meeting. Israel is seeking advance warning of a U.S. attack, as well as assurances that the United States will try to prevent Iraq from lashing out at Israel. Israeli defense officials were in Washington last week for a series of meetings on the subject.
"They are moving ahead with plans on Iraq," said Mark Regev, Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington. "These plans can affect Israel, and it's important to touch base,"
This will be Sharon's first visit to the United States since May. Plans to visit California and Florida for the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks were scrapped amid talk that Sharon was taking sides in the Florida governor's race by agreeing to meet with the president's brother, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, one day before the Democratic primary. Sharon's office said the September visit was canceled so that the prime minister could deal with Israel's worsening security situation.
Since Sharon's May visit, President Bush has made major speeches on the Middle East: one in June, calling for new Palestinian leadership and the establishment of a Palestinian state after extensive reforms, and one last month, signaling the need for the United States to take action against Iraq.
Next week's meeting comes after Bush laid out his rationale for attacking Saddam in a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7. Bush noted the threat Saddam poses to Israel, as well as to other U.S. allies in the Middle East and American servicemen stationed in the region. Specifically, Bush cited evidence that Saddam has resumed his nuclear weapons program.
"Saddam Hussein would be in position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression," Bush said. "He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America. And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists."
The speech was considered the most forceful case Bush has yet made for going to war against Iraq, and Israeli leaders are sure to take note.
"There is a definite need for the two countries, at the highest level, to consult about issues pertaining to a likely run-up" to a war, "including certain parameters during the war itself," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Administration officials started discussing an attack on Iraq shortly after Bush took office in January 2001, long before the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting U.S. war on terrorism.
Israeli officials have said from the beginning that unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the then-President George H. W. Bush succeeded in convincing Israel to stay out of the conflict, they would reserve the right to retaliate if Iraqi missiles again hit their country. In recent weeks, however, senior U.S. officials have begun pressing Israel to hold its fire, saying Israeli retaliation would not be in anyone's interest.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who met with senior Bush administration officials this week, said he believes the retaliation issue is not a major source of disagreement.
"I don't think the issue has been Israel's right to retaliate," Harris said. "What's been at issue, on occasion, has been specific methods."
Harris predicted that the Bush-Sharon meeting would be smooth, focusing on areas of cooperation between the two states. "Everything we have heard in Washington suggests that there is a very positive attitude on both sides," Harris said.
Lately, Sharon has hinted that Israeli retaliation would not be automatic. Both Israel and the United States say the scope of an attack on Israel would determine whether Israel is given the green light to retaliate or would be pressured to hold off. If Israel is attacked with nonconventional weapons or suffers mass casualties, "they are crossing thresholds to which any country should be able to act in self-defense," Makovsky said.
Many in Israel believe that if it doesn't retaliate to an attack, the Arab world would conclude that Israel succumbs to U.S. pressure, and can be used as a pawn in regional conflicts.
After strongly backing Israel's counterterrorism efforts for months, analysts said the Bush administration is now looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of its efforts against Iraq. Bush is likely to tell Sharon that he cannot take advantage of the U.S. focus on Iraq to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
White House officials sharply criticized Israel's siege late last month of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound, fearing the international outrage complicated U.S. efforts to build a coalition against Iraq. The American reaction to the Ramallah siege "was an example of what happens when the two countries are not coordinated in advance at a sensitive juncture,'' Makovsky said.
The incident provides a cautionary tale, Makovsky said, and Bush will make it clear that now is not the time to roil the regional waters. On Oct. 7, for example, the State Department strongly criticized an Israeli attack on a Hamas stronghold in the Gaza Strip that killed 14 Palestinians, including at least one civilian.
Israel, however, fears the Palestinians -- and possibly Hezbollah in Lebanon -- will conclude that the prewar period offers a window to attack Israel with impunity, believing the United States will prevent Israel from responding strongly.
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