US, Israeli leaders talk differences

Bush and Sharon meet in Texas on peace issues.

US-Israeli relations have always been at their closest when the two governments have had the same overarching priority. Daylight between the two virtually disappeared after 9/11, when President Bush made fighting terrorism his chief goal and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demonstrated to the president that he was fighting the same fight.

But now Mr. Bush's focus has shifted and broadened to include Arab democratization, and in particular that of the Palestinians. The result is that there's once again daylight between the two - and it's likely to show Monday when Mr. Sharon meets with the president at his ranch in Texas.

Relations between the two leaders remain strong, observers say, with both men - both ranch owners who like to convey an image of simple men of the land - keen to demonstrate the close ties to key domestic constituencies. But that rapport will not cover over emerging differences, in particular on the issue of West Bank settlements, as the two leaders pursue different priorities.

"I don't know if there are going to be fireworks at the ranch over it, but I do know there are real differences over the question of settlements," because the issue is central to what each leader is focused on, says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Sharon has to do something for his own domestic tranquility, so he wants some slack cut for him while he gets through the Gaza withdrawal" planned for this summer, Mr. Clawson says. "On the other hand," he adds, "Bush is going to be saying, 'Don't mess things up for [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen.' "

One problem facing Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, is that the militant Hamas organization is building new support among Palestinians. It looks poised to do well in legislative elections planned for July 17 - perilously close to Sharon's planned withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. "Can you imagine Sharon pulling out of [Gaza] if there's a Hamas parliament?" asks David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Mideast Peace Process, also at the Washington Institute.

Mr. Makovsky, who has just visited the Israel and the Palestinian territories, says worrisome "gaps" on impending issues means the US needs to be more involved in coordinating the two sides - and not just focusing on summit meetings. "I'm less interested in the hugs and kisses of these [summits] than whether they're going to take these issues head-on and in a coordinated way," he says.

The US should help the two sides clarify the cease-fire that is in effect, he says, but there also needs to be better understanding of the terms of Israel's disengagement plans and the Palestinian elections. And he sees a need for "clarity" on the expansion of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

THE settlement issue has reemerged as questions about land have returned to rival security concerns. After Israel announced plans last month to expand the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, near Arab East Jerusalem, by 3,500 housing units, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was "at odds with American policy." She warned it threatened the improved climate for pursuing Middle East peace.

In response, Israeli officials referred to a statement Bush made last year in which he said that "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers," it would be unrealistic to expect Israel to return to the armistice lines of 1949. In other words, Israel could not be expected to withdraw completely from the West Bank. In a conference call with journalists last week, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert related those words to the expansion plans for Maale Adumim. He said the president's statement was "crystal clear." As a result, Sharon would "not need any assurances" from Bush at their ranch meeting, he added.

But Bush had more to say on the topic last week. He gave one of his most categorical statements against settlement activity, repeating his backing of provisions of the "road map" supported by the US, the European Union, and Russia. "Our position is very clear that the road map is important," Bush said, "and the road map calls for no expansion of the settlements."

That prompted Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livni to acknowledge a split in interpretations of the Maale Adumim plans. "There apparently will be disputes with the Americans over this," he told Israeli radio.

One problem for the Israelis is that Bush, in his drive to improve relations with European allies, is sticking by assurances he made that a future Palestinian state must be contiguous and viable - not a set of islands separated by Israeli territory. Still, few experts expect a Crawford confrontation over settlements, especially with the Gaza withdrawal and Palestinian elections so prominent and imminent. "I'll think they'll fudge it," Makovsky says, "because nobody wants a fight at this point."

But Bush is also paying greater attention to the challenges faced by Mr. Abbas. He knows Abbas is going to have to improve the lot of Palestinians if democracy is to take root. With Hamas garnering growing support among frustrated Palestinians, Sharon no doubt understands the need to make life easier for Abbas, too, as he labors to build the Palestinians' shattered institutions, including its security forces.

But for the Israeli leader the immediate focus is still going to be on getting the Gaza withdrawal right. The US role there, says Clawson, will be to make the withdrawal as "coordinated" as possible.

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