The stakes in Sharon-Bush talks

Bush greets Sharon at White House – with differing views on Arafat's legitimacy.

As President Bush begins a week of face-to-face Middle East diplomacy, he finds himself caught between an Arab rock and a hard Israeli politician.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and other moderate Arab leaders want the US to press Israel to make the concessions they see as a necessary prelude to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – who visits the White House today – rejects that approach. He wants Mr. Bush to join with him in renouncing Yasser Arafat as a terrorist no longer fit to serve as a legitimate negotiating partner.

At stake are not only prospects for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but some of the Bush administration's most important geostrategic concerns: stable relations with key Arab states, including the region's oil producers; the future direction of the president's war on terrorism; and relations with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

"The president is trying to keep his arms stretched out all the way from Riyadh to Tel Aviv," says Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York. "It's a big stretch."

Even as he stretches, Bush will use Sharon's visit to speak of America's steadfast support for Israel. But daylight will show between the positions of the two allies over such issues as how quickly to move to political negotiations of a final peace accord.

"This is a serious and important meeting where there will be a lot of views in common, and other things on which we don't see exactly eye to eye," says one State Department official.

Two keys: Arafat and lands

Some hints as to how Bush plans to advance in these risky straits will come from how he treats two basic issues in what will be his fifth meeting as President with Sharon. One is Yasser Arafat. The other is the future of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Sharon will present Bush with a 103-page document – including what the Israeli government claims are original papers seized during the Israeli military incursion into Palestinian cities last month – proving Mr. Arafat's personal connection to Palestinian terrorist groups.

The aim is to secure American support for the idea of moving beyond Arafat to other Palestinian leaders for future negotiations.

On one level Sharon will be singing to the choir. Bush deeply distrusts Arafat. He feels he has been lied to by Arafat on questions of high-level Palestinian collaboration with groups involved in terrorist acts. In addition, Sharon knows he has the US Congress on his side. In a resolution last week, the House declared it's "grave concern ... that Arafat's actions are not those of a viable partner for peace."

But after Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the Mideast last month and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's visit to the President at his Texas ranch, the administration has settled on the position that, like it or not, Arafat is the leader the Palestinian people have chosen and he will have to be at any negotiating table.

Bush is expected to try to convince Sharon of the wisdom of dealing with Arafat. He will also tell Sharon the US is pressing its Arab partners to keep pressure on Arafat to fully renounce any links to terrorist groups and to demonstrate the "leadership" necessary to make him a viable interlocutor for the peace process.

In fact, just a day after receiving Sharon, Bush greets Jordan's King Abdullah – and his Palestinian wife – at the White House.

Then there is the issue of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. Sharon is expected to present Bush with two ideas – one, a plan for physical separation of the two populations, and another for a long-term "interim" solution that foresees extended Israeli government control over Palestinian territories – that run contrary to Bush's near-term goal of a "viable" Palestinian state.

State Department sources say these and other areas of disagreement will arise in Sharon's talks here. Mr. Powell appeared to want to preempt the idea of separation when he said Sunday, "I don't know that you're going to solve the problem with a fence."

Bush remains warm to the Arab peace proposal first put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah that would exchange full normal relations with Israel for Israel's return to its pre-1967 borders. But Sharon is wary of the idea, preferring to address territorial issues individually rather than comprehensively.

International summit planned

Sharon's rejection of accelerated moves to a comprehensive peace is what ultimately puts him at cross currents with Bush. The president, after first playing down US involvement in the Mideast, has embraced the idea of moving past step-by-step arrangements to final-status talks.

That's one reason the administration ended up promoting the idea of an international Middle East conference, which Powell announced last week after meeting here with high officials from the European Union, Russia, and the UN. The administration wants to "take advantage of the momentum we see out there," as one State Department official says, to keep the world and the region moving towards peace.

The problem is that the US must bring Israel to the table, and the task looks increasingly difficult as the specifics of what would be on that table become clearer. With Sharon returning to Israel for a congress of his Likud Party Friday, no one expects him to budge much in his positions.

But at some point, US-Israel differences will have to be addressed. "The question is whether Israel and the US can afford a long-term delay to a solution in terms of their interests," says Mr. Cohen. "They've already reached different answers, but they've been trying to keep the differences from becoming a breach in the relationship."

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