Bush at Risk of Losing Closest Mideast Ally

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

The cerebral hemorrhage suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday threatens to deprive the Bush administration of its closest working partner in the Middle East, casting doubt on President Bush's pledge to help create a Palestinian state before the end of his term.

Much of the administration's policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as its decision in 2002 to refuse to deal with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has been influenced by Sharon, who first won election shortly after Bush took office in 2001. Sharon also persuaded Bush to back his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, winning from the president a written pledge that appeared to acknowledge that Israel could keep large settlements on the West Bank and refuse the resettlement of Palestinians in any eventual peace deal.

Bush's agreement with Sharon initially caused a fierce backlash in the Arab world. But Sharon followed through with his plan, which ruptured his Likud Party and allowed some Arab states to make tentative diplomatic overtures to Israel. Sharon formed a new centrist party to push though his vision of "separation" from the Palestinians and, before yesterday's stroke, was leading in the polls for the March elections.

In a statement last night, Bush lauded Sharon as "a man of courage and peace," and said he and first lady Laura Bush "are praying for his recovery."

Yet, though Sharon and Bush have met nearly a dozen times, U.S. and Israeli officials say the relationship has generally been very proper and not especially warm. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so politically sensitive, both domestically and internationally, that the two men have carefully plotted their formal meetings. Sharon, in particular, has wanted the focus to remain on political issues even when Bush tried to establish a closer personal bond.

Bush first met Sharon in late 1998, when he was still Texas governor and trying to burnish his international credentials with a trip to Israel. Sharon gave Bush a helicopter tour over the Israeli-occupied territories, designed to demonstrate Israel's vulnerability to attack and the security provided by Israeli settlements on strategic hilltops.

The helicopter trip made a definite impression on Bush, who mentioned it at his first National Security Council meeting, according to Edward S. Walker Jr., who attended the meeting as a senior U.S. official and who is now president of the Middle East Institute.

A close working relationship with the U.S. president was considered critical to Sharon's success at home. Two previous Likud prime ministers fell from power after they clashed with a U.S. president. So Sharon has carefully maneuvered U.S. policy toward his goals -- while at the same time professing adherence to stated U.S. goals even if he viewed them with distaste.

Thus, Sharon grudgingly accepted the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," but let it become moribund while he crafted his ideas to withdraw from Gaza. The departure from Gaza ultimately became the center of U.S. peacemaking efforts.

Bush frequently reiterates his goal of creating a Palestinian state. But Sharon's goal appears to be something less than that -- Palestinian areas bordered by a fence and crisscrossed by roads and tunnels to well-protected Israeli settlements.

Yet Sharon's Gaza plan raised Bush's opinion of the Israeli leader. Bush tended to view Sharon for much of his first term as a good person with little or no vision, but that assessment changed, U.S. and Israeli officials say, when Sharon presented Bush with his plan to vacate Gaza.

Bush's statement last night referring to Sharon as a man of peace echoed an unscripted comment by the president in 2002 in which he publicly called the Israeli leader a "man of peace" during an especially tough crackdown on the Palestinians. Arab leaders at the time reacted with outrage at Bush's comment.

During a meeting months later, when the Israeli leader -- who tends to speak in platitudes in formal sessions -- began to say that he was a "man of peace and security," Bush interrupted Sharon.

"I know you are a man of security," Bush said, according to a witness to the conversation. "I want you to work harder on the peace part."

Then, using colloquial language that first seemed to baffle Sharon, Bush jabbed: "I said you were a man of peace. I want you to know I took immense crap for that."

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