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[casi] Washington Post: Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical On Mideast Policy

Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical On Mideast Policy

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 9, 2003; Page A01

Running for reelection last month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel
repeatedly boasted of the "deep friendship" he has built with the Bush
administration -- "a special closeness," he called it. He thanked
President Bush for understanding Israel's security needs and for
providing "the required leeway in our ongoing war on terrorism." He
praised Bush's latest proposals for reaching a Palestinian-Israeli peace
agreement -- a plan, said Sharon, that he and Bush had agreed on

Sharon was describing what his American supporters call the closest
relationship in decades, perhaps ever, between a U.S. president and an
Israeli government. "This is the best administration for Israel since
Harry Truman [who first recognized an independent Israel]," said Thomas
Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National
Security Affairs, a think tank that promotes strategic cooperation with
Israel as vital to U.S. security interests.

For the first time, a U.S. administration and a Likud government in
Israel are pursuing nearly identical policies. Earlier U.S.
administrations, from Jimmy Carter's through Bill Clinton's, held Likud
and Sharon at arm's length, distancing the United States from Likud's
traditionally tough approach to the Palestinians. But today, as Neumann
noted, Israel and the United States share a common view on terrorism,
peace with the Palestinians, war with Iraq and more. Neumann and others
said this change was made possible by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, and their aftermath.

The Bush administration's alignment with Sharon delights many of its
strongest supporters, especially evangelical Christians, and a large
part of organized American Jewry, according to leaders in both groups,
who argue that Palestinian terrorism pushed Bush to his new stance. But
it has led to a freeze on diplomacy in the region that is criticized by
Arab countries and their allies, and by many past and current officials
who have participated in the long-running, never-conclusive Middle East
"peace process."

"Every president since at least Nixon has seen the Arab-Israeli conflict
as the central strategic issue in the Middle East," said Samuel R.
"Sandy" Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "But
this administration sees Iraq as the central challenge, and . . . has
disengaged from any serious effort to confront the Arab-Israeli

The turning point came last June, when Bush embraced Sharon's view of
the Palestinians and made Yasser Arafat's removal as leader of the
Palestinian Authority a condition of future diplomacy. That was "a clear
shift in policy," Kenneth R. Weinstein, director of the Washington
office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative supporter of Israel and
Likud. The June speech was "a departure point," agreed Ralph Reed,
chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and former director of the
Christian Coalition.

Since then, U.S. policy has been in step with Sharon's. The peace
process is "quiescent," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Bush's
special envoy to the region. "I've kind of gone dormant," he added. In
December Bush appointed an articulate, hard-line critic of the
traditional peace process, Elliott Abrams, director of Mideast affairs
for the National Security Council.

"The Likudniks are really in charge now," said a senior government
official, using a Yiddish term for supporters of Sharon's political
party. Neumann agreed that Abrams's appointment was symbolically
important, not least because Abrams's views were shared by his boss,
national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, by Vice President Cheney and
by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "It's a strong lineup," he

Abrams is a former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan
administration who was convicted on two counts of lying to Congress in
the Iran-contra scandal, then pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. In
October 2000, Abrams wrote: "The Palestinian leadership does not want
peace with Israel, and there will be no peace."

Said Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Institute, who shares his outlook:
"Elliott's appointment is a signal that the hard-liners in the
administration are playing a more central role in shaping policy." She
added that "the hard-liners are a very unique group. The hawks in the
administration are in fact people who are the biggest advocates of
democracy and freedom in the Middle East." She was referring to the idea
that promoting democracy is the best way to assure Israel's security,
because democratic countries are less likely to attack a neighbor than
dictatorships. Adherents of this view have argued that creating a
democratic Palestine and a democratic Iraq could have a positive impact
on the entire region.

Some Middle East hands who disagree with these supporters of Israel
refer to them as "a cabal," in the words of one former official. Members
of the group do not hide their friendships and connections, or their
loyalty to strong positions in support of Israel and Likud.

One of Abrams's mentors, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's
Defense Policy Board, led a study group that proposed to Binyamin
Netanyahu, a Likud prime minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999, that he
abandon the Oslo peace accords negotiated in 1993 and reject the basis
for them -- the idea of trading "land for peace." Israel should insist
on Arab recognition of its claim to the biblical land of Israel, the
1996 report suggested, and should "focus on removing Saddam Hussein from
power in Iraq."

Besides Perle, the study group included David Wurmser, now a special
assistant to Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, and Douglas J.
Feith, now undersecretary of defense for policy. Feith has written
prolifically on Israeli-Arab issues for years, arguing that Israel has
as legitimate a claim to the West Bank territories seized after the Six
Day War as it has to the land that was part of the U.N.-mandated Israel
created in 1948. Perle, Feith and Abrams all declined to be interviewed
for this article.

Rumsfeld echoed the Perle group's analysis in a little-noted comment to
Pentagon employees last August about "the so-called occupied
territories." Rumsfeld said: "There was a war [in 1967], Israel urged
neighboring countries not to get involved . . . they all jumped in, and
they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in
that conflict. In the intervening period, they've made some settlements
in some parts of the so-called occupied area, which was the result of a
war, which they won."

When it came into office the Bush administration was uncertain and
divided, sometimes bitterly, over Mideast policy, according to numerous
sources. The State Department pressed for continued negotiations and
pressure on Sharon to limit the scope of his military response to
Palestinian suicide bombers, while the Pentagon and the vice president's
office favored more encouragement for the Israelis, and less concern for
a peace process which, they said, was going nowhere anyhow. Bush chose
not to get personally involved in Mideast diplomacy.

But the administration did make a series of statements and gestures
intended to restrain Sharon's response to suicide bombings, and to
reassert the traditional U.S. policy that Israeli settlement activity in
the West Bank had to cease. At the urging of Crown Prince Abdullah of
Saudi Arabia, Bush publicly embraced the idea of a Palestinian state.

An internal debate split the administration and invited the lobbying of
think tanks, Jewish organizations, evangelical Christians and others who
take a fierce interest in the Middle East. While some groups including
Americans for Peace Now lined up against Sharon's tough policies and in
favor of negotiations, most of the organizations and individuals who
lobbied on these issues embraced a harder line, and supported Sharon.
Over the past dozen years or more, supporters of Sharon's Likud Party
have moved into leadership roles in most of the American Jewish
organizations that provide financial and political support for Israel.

Friends of Israel in Congress also lined up with Sharon. In November
2001, 89 of 100 senators signed a letter to Bush asking the
administration not to try to restrain Israel from using "all [its]
strength and might" in response to Palestinian suicide bombings. Signers
said they wanted to persuade Bush to prevent Secretary of State Colin L.
Powell from pressuring Sharon.

Virtually all participants in these debates agree that Arafat personally
contributed to Bush's hardening position over the past two years. Before
he took office in 2001, a senior Arab diplomat said, Bush had privately
urged Arafat to accept a comprehensive settlement offered him by
Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, in January 2001. But Arafat rejected
it. A series of episodes in which Bush felt Arafat behaved
inappropriately further soured the relationship. Bush repeatedly refused
to meet with Arafat, who had met with Clinton 21 times. And month after
month, U.S. officials blamed Arafat for failing to prevent the suicide
bombings in Israel.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sharon began immediately
to argue that Israel and the United States were fighting the same enemy,
international terrorism. Over the months that followed -- months marked
by escalating violence in Israel and the West Bank -- Bush and Sharon
grew closer, personally and politically. By the end of last year the two
had met seven times and talked on many more occasions by telephone (with
Sharon doing nearly all the talking, Israeli officials said). Said a
senior official of the first Bush administration who is critical of this
one: "Sharon played the president like a violin: 'I'm fighting your war,
terrorism is terrorism,' and so on. Sharon did a masterful job."

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a leading figure in Jewish-Evangelical Christian
relations for two decades, offered a more sympathetic description of
Bush's alignment with Israel and Sharon. "President Bush's policy stems
from his core as a Christian, his perceptions of right and wrong, good
and evil, and of the need to stand up and fight against evil," Eckstein
said. "I personally believe it is very personal, not a political
maneuver on his part."

Politics have played a role, several sources said. Gary Bauer, an
evangelical Christian activist and Republican presidential candidate in
2000, said that he and like-minded evangelicals have campaigned
vigorously in support of Israel and Sharon's tough policies. "I think
we've had some impact," Bauer said.

Another conservative Republican with Christian ties who has made Israel
a cause is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Last April,
speaking to a Jewish group in Washington, DeLay called Israel "the lone
fountain of liberty" in the Middle East, and endorsed Israeli retention
of the occupied territories. He referred to West Bank by the biblical
names, Judea and Samaria, which are often used by Israelis who consider
them part of Israel.

The Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said the White
House and its political director, Karl Rove, know "how critical
[evangelical] support is to them and their party," and know how strongly
evangelicals support Israel. "We need to bless Israel more than America
needs Israel's blessing," Land said, "because Israel has a far greater
ally than the United States of America, God Almighty."

"This is not your daddy's Republican Party," said James Zogby, president
of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, who argues the
administration is losing its ability to act as an honest broker in the
Middle East by lining up with Israel. "There's a marriage here between
the religious right and the neoconservatives," he said, referring to
intellectual hard-liners such as Abrams and Perle, both of whom worked
for Democrats before joining the Reagan administration.

Another political consideration involves Jewish voters, traditionally a
Democratic constituency. Reed, the Georgia Republican chairman, said he
saw a chance that Jewish voters, particularly younger ones, could begin
moving to the Republican column in 2004 in part because of Bush's
support for Israel. "There's clearly something going on -- it's
tangible, it's palpable, and it could have a real impact," Reed said.
Bush captured 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000; Reed said he could
get 30 percent in 2004.

For now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is stalled. Many of those
interviewed for this article said they expect no movement before the
resolution of the Iraq issue. State Department officials confided
privately that they feel sidelined, and that the debate inside the
administration has ended, at least temporarily.

Diplomacy is now, at least nominally, in the hands of "the quartet" --
the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
Its members have drafted a "road map" outlining next steps toward a
Mideast peace deal, including an end to violence and cessation of all
settlement activity by the Israelis. In recent months Israel has sharply
escalated settlement activity in the West Bank. In an interview with The
Washington Post, Sharon recently dismissed the quartet as "nothing --
don't take it seriously."

 2003 The Washington Post Company

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