Bush may put the screws on Israel next. So why is Sharon smiling?

Bradley Burston

Haaretz

Cheshvan 19, 5765

Regardless of the incumbent president, Republican or Democrat, neo-con or bleeding-heart, born-again or scandal-stained, Israel's unspoken guiding principle remains the same: Keep your enemies close, and your re-elected allies closer.

At work was the maxim that a first-term president acts so as to cement his place in the White House, while a second-term president acts to cement his place in history.

At first blush, the principle - which implies that a history-conscious chief executive could resort to vigorous if elegant twisting of Israeli arms in order to wring concessions aimed at Arab approval of peace accords - would seem to mitigate against Israeli support for George Bush.

Stated differently, is George Bush likely to put pressure on Israel in a second term? Probably.

Why, then, is Ariel Sharon smiling?

Analysts agreed Wednesday that a new Bush administration would, indeed, drop the hammer on Israel, but not enough to put a significant cramp in Sharon's policy style.

Asked outright if Sharon was likely to have awoken with a smile when he was told that Bush would likely emerge the winner, analysts were unequivocal

"Without a doubt," said commentator Ben Caspit, in Tel Aviv Wednesday. "You could hear the sighs of relief resounding from Jerusalem all the way here, without a cellular phone, without a microphone.

"I'm not certain that he's right in smiling that smile, but the assumption is that 'We know Bush, and Bush, at least in his basic instinct as religious, as an evangelical, leans in our direction."

This, Caspit added, despite factors that may act to the contrary, among them "the fact that this is a second term, despite the catastrophic last visit to Washington of 'Dubi (Formaldehyde) Weisglass.

Last month Weisglass angered and embarassed U.S, officials, when he told Haaretz in an interview: "Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

"The disengagement is actually formaldehyde," Weisglass said. "It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

In the coming months, the administration may also attempt to curry lost favor with the Muslim world "on our backs," Caspit told Army Radio.

All this notwithstanding, he concluded "the the sigh of relief from Jerusalem is a very strong one."

In fact, observes Haaretz analyst Akiva Eldar, the relief that Sharon feels derives from a number of sources.

First there is the sense that Sharon has been spared a flurry of visits from spirits of Washington past, in particular Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, who filled key roles during the Oslo years.

"Sharon also can sigh in relief over the circumstance that the 'threat' that Abu Mazen [former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas] is not going to replace Yasser Arafat, is also apparently not going to take place."

Accordingly, two of Sharon's principle "assets" remain innplace in the event of a Bush victory, Eldar says. The first is Bush himself, "who accepts Sharon's views on unilateralism and that there is no Palestinian partner for peacemaking.

"Then there is the 'No Partner' himself, Arafat, who is staying on the scene.

In sum, Eldar concludes, "This is one of the happiest days of Sharon's whole life."

In an election that flew in the face of many guiding principles, the prime minister made little secret of his affinity to Bush, who has publicly gone to great lengths in efforts to back Sharon's policies.

Senior Israeli diplomats, stepping gingerly throughout the campaign, took pains to state that both candidates would support Israel with equal conviction and equal ferver.

A Foreign Ministry report cited by Israeli media accounts, meanwhile, gave a diametrically different spin to the equivalence argumnent.

The thrust of the report was summed up in a Maariv newspaper headline, which appeared Wednesday as the first election returns were streaming in from the United States: "In any case, Israel will be the loser."

The report was quoted as saying that no matter who won the election, the next administration would pressure on Israel, in Kerry's case, to forge a united front with Europe over the Middle East. In the case of Bush, the aim of the White House would be solving woes in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, at Israel's diplomatic expense.

Israeli fears over a possible escalation in pressure, and a resulting narrowing of manevering space, were little allayed by the response Wednesday of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, when asked if the new administration was likely to pressure Israel.

"The word pressure does not figure in my vocabulary, and I don't assume that it's going to be part of the next president's vocabulary," Kurtzer said.

"We have issues that are on our mind. Prime Minister Sharon knows that, and he's made commitments that he has told us that he intends to fulfil, and I think that's the important part at this juncture."

The Bush administration has made unprecedented efforts to demonstrate backing for Sharon policies, often to the dismay of Palestinians, who earlier this year were rocked by new Bush formulations indicating that West Bank blocs might be made permanently part of Israel, and that Palestinian refugees would be denied their oft-expressed dream of returning to former homes within Israel.

At the same time, corps of administration emissaries have quietly pressed Israeli officials for action on such commitments as dismantling illegal West Bank settlement outposts and easing military restrictions on the daily lives of Palestinian civilians.

"Clearly there's a lot of work still to be done," Kurtzer said. "There's a lot of work here in Israel.The Knesset is meeting today on aspects of disengagement. There's unfinished business with respect to the letter that Dov Weisglass sent to Dr. Rice, and we'll continue our efforts in this."

The Knesset was to vote later on Wednesday on the first reading of the Evacuation and Compensation Bill, which would set out legal and financial details of the prime minister's plan for a withdrawal from 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four in the West Bank.

Sharon is expected to prevail on the first reading, but the bill, seen as crucial to the success of the disengagement plan, faces two further parliamentary votes before it becomes law.

Prior to the expected vote on the disengagement bill, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said that factors such as the personal chemistry between Bush and Sharon - who came to power within weeks of each other in 2001 - could be overriding factors even in the context of American expectations of the Sharon government.

Shalom conceded that "It's generally common to say that a president elected to a first term immediately begins thinking about being elected to a second term. By contrast, a second-term president immediately wants to know how he will be inscribed on the pages of history books in the U.S. and the world.

In the case of Bush and Sharon, however, "There's no question that the chemistry has been very great, as has President Bush's friendship. This is something that no one can take from him. His standing alongside Israel has been a very, very clear stance."

In any event, said Itamar Rabinovich, an ex-Israeli ambassador to Washington and a former senior peace negotiator, the expectation that a second-term president would go full bore in search of a historical legacy, is far from realistic.

"There is no such thing as a 'pure' second term, four years free of political worries for the president. Two years from now, there will be elections again, for Congress, the Senate and governors, there's a need to preserve majorities in both houses.

"No president can truly feel himself exempt from political constraints, even in a second term.