Ariel Sharon counts President Bush as a personal friend and a supporter of Israel, but signs indicate that Israel and the United States may be on a collision course over Middle East diplomacy.
If there is a collision in the offing, it may become apparent soon, because the Israeli prime minister and Bush will be meeting next week at theWhite House.
Monday's surprise announcement of the June 10 meeting comes as the Bush administration faces growing international pressure to produce a timetable and a detailed set of proposals for getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table and ending their conflict.
Ironically, ideas that Sharon himself initiated, and which subsequently were picked up by the Bush administration, have brought to the surface deep differences between Jerusalem and Washington on how to proceed in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
On the face of it, Sharon seems to have been extremely adept at getting his positions across:
- Sharon convinced Bush that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
- Sharon's prodding finally led Bush to declare his "deep disappointment" in the Palestinian leader.
- Sharon persuaded the Americans that the Palestinian Authority must undertake comprehensive reforms if it is to become a trustworthy neighbor to which Israel can make concessions.
- Sharon came up with a grand scheme for a regional peace conference this summer, which has become the cornerstone of America's peace policy in the Middle East.
Yet now, it seems, all these ideas may boomerang on the Israeli prime minister, forcing him into political moves he would rather delay. The trouble for Sharon is that while the Americans accept his package in principle, they differ over the purpose, timetables and other key details.
For example, American officials see Palestinian reform and an international peace conference as a recipe for kick-starting substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Some of the officials now suspect that Sharon sees those elements as a means of buying time and putting off meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians.
By putting his ideas on the table, Sharon may have inadvertently set off a process leading inexorably to a showdown with Washington.
The perception gap between Jerusalem and Washington was apparent during late May and early June visits to the region by William Burns, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and CIA Director George Tenet.
In a meeting with Burns, Sharon argued that Arafat is incorrigible, and that as long as he is in power, there is no chance of a cease-fire or of political progress.
Arafat must be sidelined -- including him in the reform process would be "a cardinal error," Sharon said.
Burns countered that only Arafat could give grass-roots legitimacy to the reform process, and that if Arafat carried out the necessary reforms he could still be a player.
Sharon's close advisers acknowledge that the prime minister's greatest fear is that Arafat will take charge of the reform process, pretend to go along with it, regain international support and whip up pressure on Israel to make concessions.
"The whole idea is to replace the Arafat system of terror, corruption and internal repression, and it's obvious to us that Arafat can't change the system he personifies," says Danny Ayalon, the prime minister's foreign policy adviser and ambassador-designate to Washington.
Sharon and his advisers also seem to have more stringent demands for Palestinian reform than the United States.
On reform of the security services, Sharon says that unifying the services under a single command is meaningless unless the various militias -- such as Tanzim, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- are disarmed.
On political reform, Sharon's advisers talk about separation of powers, not merely new elections.
But the biggest difference is over the relationship between reform and peacemaking. For Sharon, reform is a condition for bilateral peace talks with the Palestinians, while the United States says reform and peace talks should proceed simultaneously.
The legitimate demand for reform, the Americans say, must not be used to delay the peacemaking process.
Sharon and the Americans also have very different notions of what the international Middle East peace conference should be about. According to Ayalon, Sharon views the conference as a kind of open-ended "peace club" in which members with peace credentials like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel discuss ways of promoting regional stability.
"We see the conference as a means of establishing a peace coalition of Middle Eastern moderates as a counterweight to the war coalition which we see with Iran, Iraq and Syria," Ayalon says. "But it is not meant to be a substitute for bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians."
The Americans, however, see the conference as a major tool for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on a final peace deal, with a clear timetable for Palestinian statehood.
To balance Israeli, Arab, American and European positions on the conference, the Americans reportedly are considering crafting a letter of invitation stipulating that a key goal of the process initiated by the conference is the establishment of a Palestinian state.
That would make it clear to the Palestinians that the conference puts final status negotiations back on the negotiating agenda, and reassure Israel that the conference won't issue a diktat.
The Americans also are urging Sharon to come out with a substantive Israeli peace plan as a counterweight to the Saudi and Egyptian plans on which the conference would in part be based.
Sharon argues that for Israel to issue a peace plan while Arafat remains at the helm would be seen as a reward for terror, and would erode the pressure he has so painstakingly built up on the Palestinian leader.
The Americans warn that unless there is an Israeli plan, President Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell will outline a detailed American blueprint.
To preempt a diplomatic rift with the United States and the rest of the international community, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is urging Sharon to coordinate peace moves with the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations.
In Peres' view, the conference and the preceding run-up should be used to shape the contours of a settlement with the quartet that would guarantee Israel's vital interests.
So far, there is no sign that Sharon intends to follow Peres' advice. American officials suggest that Bush, wary of alienating the Jewish vote, will be careful not to confront Sharon before the mid-term congressional elections in November.
But after that, the president will feel free to act -- and Sharon, if he fails to respond, could find that Bush is not such a close friend after all.
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