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Bush's Mideast tête-à-têtes: cookies and trucks

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2002



WASHINGTON

In 1998, when George W. Bush was still governor of Texas, he took an unforgettable helicopter tour of the West Bank with Ariel Sharon, Israel's foreign minister at the time.

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The Texan was struck by the tiny distance between Israel's population centers and the enemy lines of the 1967 war – lines the Arab world would like Israel to retreat to in any Palestinian peace deal.

"The general said that before the Six Day War, Israel was only nine miles wide at its narrowest point," Mr. Bush later recalled. "In Texas, some of our driveways are longer than that."

This week, Mr. Sharon, now Israel's prime minister, traveled a far shorter White House driveway for a face-to-face with his former touring companion – a man who likely appreciates the import of that helicopter ride even more than he did four years ago.

One of six leaders from the region to visit Mr. Bush in three weeks, Sharon's meeting illustrates a revolving-door diplomacy in which the president has become more personally involved with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis than with almost any other foreign-policy issue in his presidency.

While up-close politics has its limits – Bill Clinton's incessant intervention couldn't bridge the gulf in this dispute – analysts say it's a critical, if risky, component of American leadership in the Mideast.

"Within the Arab world especially, personal diplomacy is of supreme importance," says Raymond Tanter, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He points out that while the common value of democracy is the glue that holds U.S. and Israel together, that's not the case with the Arab countries. "These rulers actually rule," he says, making personal relations between Bush and leaders of the Arab world all the more important.

Not unlike most presidents, Bush puts a premium on good personal relations with other leaders. On the day before his first trip to Europe last year, for instance, he called in Senate Foreign Relations chairman Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) for a briefing – not on policy, but on the personalities of the leaders he was about to meet.

Bush has forged an intimate relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a personal warmth is developing between this president and Russia's Vladimir Putin. However, relations with Mideast leaders, by contrast, are complicated by the complexity of the Arab-Israeli problem.

Still, analysts say, after 13 visits with Arab heads of state – about half of them just this year – and five meetings with Sharon, the nature of the president's personal diplomacy with these leaders is beginning to take shape.

The Sharon nonconnection

Let's be frank, says Israel expert Bernard Reich, in speaking about the chemistry between Bush and Sharon: "As individuals, they really have nothing in common."

They come from different generations and different backgrounds but they share a similar appreciation of direct and frank communication. At their first meeting last year, they promised each other "no surprises." More importantly, the context of the two countries' relationship – be it historical, congressional, or democratic – serves to help the leaders through their many disagreements.

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