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Bush-Sharon Alliance Strong Despite Friction

Keeping disagreements from escalating, the two leaders have forged close ties, benefiting both.

January 08, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Sept. 11 attacks were only three weeks past when one of America's key allies threw relations into turmoil by comparing President Bush to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister famous for his appeasement policy with Nazi Germany.

Denouncing Bush's plan to strengthen ties with Muslim nations to help fight terrorism, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned the United States, "Do not try to placate the Arabs at our expense." He declared that Israel's interests would not be sacrificed as Czechoslovakia's were six decades earlier in a vain effort to avoid war with Hitler.

The White House erupted in protest, and aides said Bush was offended. Yet within weeks the storm passed, and in its aftermath the relationship not only recovered, but became stronger.

The episode offers an important insight into Bush's relationship with Sharon, who is critically ill after suffering a massive stroke. Friction between the two men has been repeated, but during the last five years they have always found a way to smooth over their disagreements before they became crises and to manage the alliance so that it was one of their greatest strategic assets.

"This has not been quite as much of a love fest as it has sometimes been made out to be," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Yet, "year after year, it's a pretty remarkable political partnership."

Bush has wanted Sharon to move somewhat further and faster in making concessions to the Palestinians for the sake of peace. But the relationship has been held together by their common view of the war on Islamic extremism and by Bush's conviction that America should help out from the sidelines in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute rather than as an active broker, as some U.S. presidents have done.

When Sharon announced in 2004 that he would unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Bush not only backed the controversial plan, but made it a centerpiece of his strategy for the Middle East. When Sharon completed the withdrawal, in the face of powerful opposition from Israel's right wing, White House confidence in him soared.

The first important moment in the relationship may have come in 1998, when Bush, as governor of Texas, took a helicopter tour with Sharon of the West Bank. The trip convinced him of Israel's vulnerability and the need for strong security, Bush said afterward.

When Bush became president, however, some on his team had doubts about Sharon's reliability as an ally.

Officials in the administration of his father, President George H.W. Bush, had clashed with Sharon when he, as a Cabinet minister, was promoting the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. It came at the time when the elder Bush was trying to halt such an expansion in hopes of generating movement toward peace talks.

That administration at one point forbade U.S. officials to meet with Sharon, prompting an unusual diplomatic protest from Israel.

"There was tremendous animosity between Sharon and American diplomats," analyst Brown said. " 'Anti-American' is probably not a fair term, but he was really strong and blunt and suspicious" of U.S. intentions.

But Brown said the beginning of the younger Bush's administration brought an "amazing transformation" in Sharon's attitude toward the U.S. Despite his outburst likening Bush to Chamberlain, Sharon was coming to the view that Israel and the United States were in a common fight against Islamic radicalism.

"Sharon was a post-9/11 figure," said Steven L. Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist. "He fit right into Bush's world view and vice versa."

It also strengthened the relationship that key figures in Bush's administration, such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, were notably hawkish on Arab-Israeli issues, perhaps more so than Bush himself.

A milestone in the relationship came in April 2004, when at a meeting with Bush at the White House, Sharon laid out his plan for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and small portions of the West Bank. Although the Israeli move was unilateral, Bush saw the plan as a major step toward a Palestinian state, and hoped, among other things, that it would help calm Arab anger stirred by America's invasion of Iraq a year earlier.

In an unusual step, Bush gave Sharon a letter declaring his support and suggesting that in a peace settlement Israel shouldn't be expected to absorb Palestinian refugees into Israel or fully return to its borders before the 1967 Middle East War.

The letter was a political triumph for Sharon, and he used it often at home as he sought to build political support for the Gaza withdrawal.

Bush and Sharon learned to keep their policy disagreements from escalating. Bush, for example, has wanted Sharon to follow through on his promises to dismantle illegal settler outposts in the West Bank.

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