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THE MIDDLE EAST | NEWS ANALYSIS

Unlike Arafat, Sharon Won Bush's Trust

April 14, 2002|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In December 1998, shortly before he decided to run for president, then-Gov. George W. Bush made a three-day visit to Israel and came home with two indelible memories.

One was of standing on the hill in the Galilee where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, and reciting the words to "Amazing Grace." The other was of a helicopter tour over Israel's narrow 1967 boundaries and the occupied West Bank--a tour conducted personally by then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon.

On the same trip, Bush also sought a meeting with Yasser Arafat, but the Palestinian Authority president turned him down, missing a priceless political opportunity.

Ever since, Bush's relationships with the Middle East's two bitter antagonists have followed much the same pattern. Sharon has cultivated the president and has largely won Bush's confidence--not only by embracing the U.S. war on terrorism but also by being frank when he disagrees with U.S. policies.

Last week, for example, Sharon told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that while he would withdraw his forces from the West Bank, it wouldn't be as quickly as the U.S. wanted. After reports that U.S. officials were unhappy with that message, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer pointedly praised Sharon as "a man of peace."

Arafat, in contrast, has impressed Bush as indecisive and untrustworthy.

"He never earned my trust," Bush recently said of the Palestinian. "In order to earn my trust, somebody must keep their word. And Chairman Arafat has not kept his word. He said he would fight off terror. He hasn't."

Now that Bush has stepped fully into Middle East peacemaking, the president faces a paradox: To get the conflict under control, he must be cautious about endorsing the actions of Sharon, the man he trusts, and accept the need to deal with Arafat, the man he doesn't.

As a result, statements from the White House sometimes seem to carry a mixed message: calling for Israeli restraint but praising Sharon, excoriating Arafat, but approving Powell's decision to meet with him.

The president's support for Israel and his distaste for Arafat are undimmed, aides say. But the lessons of his first full week of high-profile peacemaking were summed up by a weary White House official Saturday: "It's going to be a long, hard road."

Ten days ago, Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and demanded a clear statement from Arafat denouncing suicide bombers and a clear commitment from Sharon for a rapid withdrawal of troops from the West Bank. He reinforced the message with telephone calls to foreign leaders and in daily conversations with Powell. But it took more than a week to persuade Arafat to comply--and Sharon still hasn't said when he plans to end his military offensive.

Administration officials insist that Bush hasn't been surprised by the tough going.

"We did not have high expectations for this trip," one said. "Nobody thought we were going to get a dramatic success or a breakthrough."

The apparent paradoxes in U.S. policy stem from the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, officials say. In the short run, they argue, Sharon is right to crack down on Palestinian terrorism; in the long run, the administration will urge him to reach out to the Palestinians and make peace. In the short run, the Palestinians have rallied around Arafat, and there is no one else Powell or Sharon can deal with; in the long run, the administration wants to encourage a new generation of more moderate Palestinians to take the lead, a goal that seems impractical in the middle of a war.

Bush's sympathy for Sharon's position appears undiminished despite the Israeli's failure to withdraw his troops. Sharon and other Israeli officials have argued that their campaign against Palestinian terrorism is no different from Bush's counter-terrorism effort after the Sept. 11 attacks, and they appear to have hit a nerve.

"On Sharon's side, the terrorism has become unbearable," a senior official said. "You have to understand how it is in Israel. . . . There are strategic concerns over the long run, but in the short run support for Sharon's strategy is over 80% [among Israelis].

"When the president made his call [for withdrawal] they were in as many as 40 towns. Now they are down to four major towns and two or three minor places," he said. "[Sharon] has actually been very responsive."

Sharon denounced Powell's interest in meeting with Arafat as "a tragic mistake," but the official said Bush was not offended by the blunt disagreement. "[Sharon] said clearly that he doesn't favor dealing with Arafat, but he also said it's a decision Secretary Powell has to make," the official said.

Arafat, on the other hand, has never established the same kind of link with Bush. Before Bush came to the White House, one ally said, the main thing he knew about Arafat was that the Palestinian leader backed Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War--against the current president's father.

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