- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

Tomorrow, Ariel Sharon arrives in Washington to meet with President Bush and his advisers. The major reason for this first U.S. visit as prime minister is to inform the new administration about Israel's goals and purposes.

Mr. Sharon will try to establish an understanding with Mr. Bush on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the tension on the Lebanon border, seeking support from the United States in the event of regional escalation. Mr. Sharon and the Bush team are primarily concerned with regional stability.

Both the Clintonian search for comprehensive peace and Palestinian independence will no longer be the center of Middle East policy. Mr. Sharon will not mince words. He will tell the president that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are enemies of Israel, and that so long as Mr. Arafat continues the low-intensity war against Israel, Mr. Sharon will not negotiate.

He will also emphasize that Mr. Arafat, like his partner Saddam Hussein, is dedicated to violence and the disruption of stability in the region. Like Saddam, Mr. Arafat hopes to link the plight of Iraqi citizens to that of the Palestinians in the minds of the international community. The March 15 Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reports that, according to sources, "Sharon will distinguish between the PA, which he sees as a hostile entity, and the Palestinian population."

The Palestinian Authority claims to be collapsing at the hands of Israel. It blames Israel's siege policy and its refusal to remit to the PA tax payments collected from Palestinians. Rachel Ehrenfeld, in an article on The Washington Times op-ed page March 15, reported that, "Mr. Arafat's misgovernance and corruption is responsible for the economic collapse [ of the PA]."

Before it establishes its Middle East policy, the Bush administration will listen to what Mr. Sharon has to say and carefully study the composition of his government and its intended policies. The Israeli Cabinet reflects the election results. The nation was seeking a national unity government, and Mr. Sharon complied. This is the largest Cabinet in Israeli history with 26 ministers and some 15 deputy ministers; about one-third of the Knesset. An additional table had to be brought into the Cabinet room to accommodate them. There are more hawks than doves in this government, and it promises to be unruly.

To overcome this mass movement as a government, Mr. Sharon and Shimon Peres the two former Ben-Gurionites will run security and foreign policy. During their combined 150 years (Mr. Sharon is 73; Mr. Peres, 77), they have accumulated more experience in military, security and foreign affairs matters than any other members of the Cabinet.

Mr. Sharon has learned from the mistakes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak when forming their governments. Mr. Netanyahu's was center-right; Mr. Barak's was center-left. Mr. Sharon has established a truly center government.

All will depend, of course, on how well Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres cooperate and how the hawks and pragmatic doves of this government respond to policies neither may like. The task before Prime Minister Sharon is daunting, and he hopes not to repeat the unfortunate experiences of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak.

Mr. Sharon hopefully will continue the policies of his predecessors with the neighboring Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan. He already has sent emissaries to Cairo and Amman to explain his projected policies. Like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he wants to avoid regional war. Mr. Mubarak clearly stated his opposition to Saddam Hussein's proclamation of a regional Arab war against Israel. It is contrary to Egyptian interests.

When it comes to Jordan, Mr. Sharon hopes to establish a relationship with King Abdullah that will be strategically at the expense of the Palestinians. He hopes to persuade the king that the Jordan Valley and River are an exclusive Israeli-Jordanian strategic outpost, and that he not longer subscribes to his former doctrine that Palestine is Jordan. This will be a difficult task.

There is no guarantee of a honeymoon between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres.The latter remains dedicated to the continuation of Oslo with modifications, although Oslo is dead. "The Oslo peace process, which represented the ultimate in ignoring unresolved conflicts, is paper that papers over nothing anymore," Michael Kelly wrote in The Washington Post on March 14. Mr. Peres believes it is necessary to keep talking to the Palestinians even if official negotiations are delayed until the violence ends.

In the past, Mr. Peres has been known to be a loose cannon, running his own diplomacy with European and Arab foreign leaders, who have great respect for him, and then presenting a fait accompli to his surprised prime minister. He did not consult with prime ministers on critical issues until they were well on their way, and Oslo is a prime example.

Mr. Sharon, an old fox, is aware of the "creativity" and utopian misperceptions of Mr. Peres. Mr. Sharon does not believe in Mr. Peres' "New" Middle East. He is not as optimistic that new leaders have overcome their fundamental antagonism to Israel and its statehood. He will convey this to President Bush, bringing maps and biographies to buttress his argument.

The close relationship between Israel and the United States on security and strategic concerns should continue, and Mr. Sharon hopes to enhance it in the future. He will need to keep his Cabinet from derailing this relationship by insisting on escalation of Israeli response to Palestinian violence. His dilemma is a serious one.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.


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