Tuesday, April 20, 2004

After nine Sharon-Bush tete-a-tetes in three years, it has become the hootchy-kootchy show of the now chimeric Middle East peace process.

This time, the tough-talking, wily Israeli prime minister managed to black out what little bit of sunlight still existed between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister. He talked George W. Bush into ditching long-established U.S. policy positions based on U.N. resolutions.

Israeli settlement activities in occupied territories were long deemed illegal under international law. No longer. And Mr. Bush’s latest decision has made it that much harder for European and Arab governments to back the United States in the Middle East. That means Iraq, too, where the new Spanish government decided to pull out its 1,000-strong contingent without waiting for a U.N. decision on accepting responsibility.

What Mr. Bush endorsed as Mr. Sharon’s “historic and courageous” decision was seen as further erosion of the Bush administration’s credibility in the rest of the world.

The wear and tear began immediately after September 11, 2001, when Mr. Sharon convinced Mr. Bush his war on Palestinian terrorist groups was the same as America’s war on al Qaeda’s transnational terrorism. It wasn’t then, but quickly became so after the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when jihadi (holy warrior) volunteers flocked to Saddam’s former satrapy like bees to honey to take on the Judeo-Christian crusaders.

Next Mr. Sharon had to persuade Mr. Bush the wall/fence/ditch barrier going up to separate Palestinians from Israelis in the West Bank was strictly a deterrent to keep terrorists out of Israel. At first Mr. Bush balked. He even said it was a very real pothole on the road map to peace. Not so, replied Mr. Sharon who promptly extended the barrier from 360 miles to 403 miles. The cost escalated from $1.2 billion to $2 billion. But that wasn’t much of a problem either as Israel was getting a fresh line of U.S. credits to the tune of $9 billion.

This time around the White House track, Mr. Sharon got it all. Mr. Bush evidently decided his own road map to November included a warm embrace of Mr. Sharon and his plan to draw the final map of Israel, which includes 40 percent of the pre-1967 war West Bank.

Mr. Bush also dealt himself out of any possible role as mediator, intermediary or honest broker between the two sides. Beginning with Mr. Bush’s original benign neglect of the festering Israeli-Palestinian sore, U.S. even-handed diplomacy gradually faded away in the aftermath of September 11. 2001.

No sooner did Israel emerge victorious from the 1967 Six-Day War, with the total defeat of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces, than Jewish settlers began colonizing the West Bank, which Jordan had lost. The boundaries of east Jerusalem were expanded from 6.5 square kilometers to 70.5 square kilometers to include land from a number of West Bank villages. Today some 200,000 Israelis live there. Another 240,000 have settled in about 150 previously Palestinian locations, all declared illegal by U.N. resolutions and the United States — until last week, that is.

The architect of colonization and the driving force of settlement expansion has been war hero Ariel Sharon in a variety of high-powered government jobs. It would be totally out of character for Mr. Sharon, at 74, to end his career by agreeing to dismantle his life’s work.

It quickly became apparent the road map for a two-state solution by 2005 was for a road no longer on the map. So Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon pantomimed a tragicomical Middle East peace process that would pay lip service to a two-state solution. What little was left of the West Bank after Mr. Sharon completes his barrier to include Israel’s principal settlements cannot, by the remotest stretch of the imagination, be a viable independent state. Most of the West Bank’s Jewish settlements would remain — this time with President Bush’s blessing.

Mr. Sharon the illusionist then prestidigitated an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — by the end of 2005 — and what’s left of the West Bank into a Palestinian state (for a total of less than 20 percent of the original land of Palestine).

Gaza was a no-brainer. Some 7,500 Jews live there, divided among 26 barricaded settlements that require 50,000 Israeli troops to protect them from 1.3 million Palestinians. Average age of a Palestinian: 16. Unemployment: 60 percent. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have more volunteers than they can handle.

Mr. Sharon also made clear who would be in charge after Israel’s withdrawal. Less than a month after the gunship assassination of Hamas’ quadriplegic spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a similar air strike took out Hamas’ political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, with a direct hit on his car. Hamas is credited with half the 100 suicide bombings of Israeli targets.

When the Israeli Defense Force leaves Gaza, it will redeploy around the hapless strip, even along its common border with Egypt, and keep control of its port and airport. An independent Palestinian state in Gaza, or in Gaza plus 60 percent of the West Bank, still pockmarked with Israeli settlements, is another no-brainer; it’s an aberration.

In an interview with Ma’ariv, Mr. Sharon quickly made clear the purpose of his plan: a “lethal blow” to Palestinians that “will bring their dreams to an end.” Mr. Bush responded, “He told me he supported a Palestinian state.” Hello.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and for United Press International.

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