President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are engaged in a delicate test of wills that could complicate the American peace mission to the Middle East this week and perhaps undermine the prestige of the White House.
Mr. Sharon's reluctance to withdraw his forces from the Palestinian territories despite Mr. Bush's increasingly pointed demands to do so threatens to imperil the urgent attempt at peacemaking by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left on a one-week trip yesterday to deal with the crisis.
More broadly, the longer Sharon presses his military campaign, the more it could look like the Israelis are openly defying Bush, just when the president put Washington's stature on the line to try to resolve the conflict.
"If Sharon continues to thumb his nose at Bush, beyond whatever tacit leeway both may have agreed on, then Bush is looking incompetent," says Michael Hudson, an Arab expert at Georgetown University here.
Perhaps worse, say Mr. Hudson and other Middle East experts, is the expected continued carnage in the region and the problems this creates for America's moderate Arab friends who are critical to the war on terrorism and to any lasting peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
"You only need to see the huge demonstrations from Indonesia to Stockholm, to realize that this is an enormously embarrassing policy position to be in," says Mr. Hudson. "Practically the whole world is appalled, not only because of the brutality of what the Israelis are doing, but the seeming American" complicity in the operation.
It was a big moment for President Bush to step into the Rose Garden last Thursday, lay out his vision for resolving the stubborn Israeli-Palestinian issue, dispatch his secretary of State to the region, and reverse himself by calling for an Israeli withdrawal. Some analysts described it as his highest-profile involvement in the conflict since the start of his presidency, which has largely tried to sidestep the quagmire.
Mr. Bush continued on his more activist trajectory over the weekend, calling for an Israeli withdrawal "without delay" and telephoning Prime Minister Sharon to bluntly state that he meant what he said. He also reiterated his criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Yet Israel seemed unmoved by the president's urgings, pressing ahead with its campaign to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. While Sharon did promise to "accelerate" his campaign, he didn't immediately take steps to withdraw troops.
Israeli forces, in fact, expanded their activity yesterday to Beit Rima village, near Ramallah. One government officials says that, depending on intelligence information, they will move on other "small towns but no cities."
Israeli officials have their own reasons for continuing the incursions. Politically, Sharon could be damaged if he were to be seen as taking orders from Washington. He's also got the backing of the Israeli public to root out terrorism in the Palestinian territories.
"I don't know whether Sharon should be expected to immediately salute and say, 'OK boss,' " says William Quandt, who helped President Carter bring Israel and Egypt to a historic peace accord at Camp David. "I do suspect he got the message and it can't go on much longer. He won't stop abruptly. On the other hand, he's a realist and knows he doesn't have too much time."
Bush also didn't give a precise time for the Israelis to pull out and the Sharon government is taking a liberal interpretation. Israeli officials say they believe the US leader is aware that "Israel must carry things through because if we stop in mid-course, terrorism will emerge again," as Raíanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, put it yesterday.
Still, the longer the Israeli military campaign goes on, the more difficult it will be for the White House to maneuver. A lot can happen between now and the end of the week, when Powell is due to arrive in the region, warns Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Mr. Telhami says if the situation remains unchecked, more blood will be shed, more anti-US and anti-Israeli demonstrations will take place, and Washington's credibility and the president's influence will erode.
"It's going to be very difficult for the administration to ride it out," says Telhami. "It's inevitable there will have been some significant casualties, and if the consequences turn out to be even more horrific [than initial media reports], the administration will be under tremendous pressure, because it will be seen to have been collaborating," he says.
"I do not see how Powell can even have a shot at succeeding, without having Israeli withdrawals from cities begin before he gets there," he adds.
That message was underscored by Bush officials yesterday, as Powell and National Security Advisory Condoleeza Rice hit the Sunday talk show circuit to explain that an Israeli withdrawal "without delay" means now, immediately. At the same time, they expressed understanding for the size and complexity of the operation. "It's not going to be over in a day," Powell said on "Fox News Sunday."
Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Jerusalem.