Next steps for US after the Gaza vote

The defeat of Sharon's withdrawal plan, though embarassing to Bush, won't likely bring a US policy shift.

The always threatening waters of Middle East affairs turned all the more treacherous for the United States after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party on Sunday soundly rejected his plan for withdrawal from Gaza - a plan President Bush strongly endorsed when Mr. Sharon visited the White House last month.

With Sharon politically weakened and America's other Middle East partners alienated from the US for its ever-closer alignment with Israel, the US finds itself with a marooned policy for the region at a crucial moment - as it seeks international help in Iraq and broad political reforms across the region.

Sharon's defeat also demonstrates how the turn of events in the region is determined increasingly by minorities on all sides holding extremist views - suggesting in turn the region's need for the moderating and leveling role the US has traditionally played.

Right now that role appears to be sidetracked. By publicly endorsing Sharon's Gaza plan along with key concessions Sharon had sought - including first-ever official recognition by the US that some Israeli West Bank settlements will probably be permanent - the Bush administration infuriated both Israel's Arab neighbors and European partners.

Now with Sharon in a crisis that could force elections in Israel, the US is on shaky ground with even its best friends in the region.

The US meets Tuesday in New York with its international partners with whom it is working for Middle East peace - the so-called "quartet" of the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. But questions of "how did we get to this low state?" are likely to dominate any ideas for moving forward.

Time for moderation?

One hope emanating principally from the State Department is that Sharon's defeat within his own party will prompt the Israeli leader to shift away from the more extreme positions of his Likud base. In that vein, some Israeli political analysts are suggesting Sharon could opt to form a new and broad national coalition government that would better reflect the general Israeli population's strong support for Sharon's plans, including the Gaza pullout.

But others see that as wishful thinking, noting that both Likud's vote against Sharon and recent anti-Israeli Palestinian violence demonstrate how the moderate, compromising positions that once dominated the search for peace have been taken hostage by the extremes.

"What we are seeing is how, in the absence of a moderating center from the US or from within the region, the power of the ideological extremes is dominating," says Stephen Cohen, national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum in New York.

Likud's unequivocal defeat of Sharon's Gaza plan shows how "the Israeli settlers movement has taken an inordinate amount of power," says Mr. Cohen, "and that should be a very important lesson for the US."

At the same time, he says, the particularly gruesome killing Sunday of a pregnant Israeli settler in Gaza and her children means that "Likud rejectionism is being more than matched by Palestinian terrorism."

Noting that the killings were praised by the leader of Islamic Jihad in Damascus, Cohen says, "The extremes know exactly what to do when there is no center for people to turn to."

One possibility is that the Likud vote will "awaken" Sharon to the power achieved by the most conservative of his supporters, and thus prompt an opening to more moderate forces on his part.

"Perhaps this will ignite a reaction in the rest of Likud and Labor and other sectors of Israeli society that the settlers have had their way too long," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "That could prompt a platform for reining the settlers in."

After going so far out on a limb to support Sharon, the Bush administration is not likely to alter that position - especially in an election year when both Bush's pro-Israel Christian base and the Jewish vote are seen as crucial.

The White House Monday reaffirmed its backing for the Sharon plan, while the plan's Israeli advocates insisted it would go forward.

"There is no doubt disengagement is inevitable and unstoppable," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said of the Gaza plan. "In the end it will happen because the alternative is more murder, terrorism, and attacks without us having any wise answer for what 7,500 Jewish [settlers] are doing among 1.2 million Palestinians [in Gaza]," Mr. Olmert said on Israel Radio.

The Bush position

The White House appears to be hoping that Sharon will still get his Gaza plan through, and vindicate its original reason for supporting the plan - that it was the only new idea on the table to shake up the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

Likud's rejection "is a setback personally and strategically for Sharon," but his Gaza plan remains "the only game in town," says Paul Scham, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. But Likud's "no" vote after Bush's strong endorsement of the plan also shows "that Bush's imprimatur doesn't mean as much as either Sharon or the White House thought it would," he adds.

That factor is likely to encourage Bush's basic instinct to stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much as possible. "Bush decided a year ago that any attempt to solve the Middle East conflict that put America's prestige on the line would probably cause more problems than it would solve," says Mr. Scham, who is also a researcher at the Truman Institute of Hebrew University in Israel. "This being so close to an election, nothing will have changed the thinking that this is even more the wrong time."

The Israel Policy Forum's Cohen agrees, saying "It is highly unlikely there will be any deep reevaluation [of US policy] during an election season.

But at the same time," he adds, "events are not about to let us forget ... that come January 2005, we will have a very heavy item on America's foreign policy agenda."

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