Sharon shocker: Bush, Im ready to work with Arafat

WASHINGTON — Those who thought the Mideast peace process would die under Ariel Sharon may be surprised by what the Israeli prime minister tells President Bush when the two meet here Tuesday.

Sources say Sharon is expected to announce that under the right circumstances Israel would have no objection to a unilateral declaration of statehood by Yasser Arafat.

In return, Sharon will want understandings that the state will be demilitarized, it will permit no foreign forces on its territory, and it will make no alliances with states hostile to Israel. Israel would control border crossings and air space as well as the Jordan Valley pending a final and formal pact.

"Arafat probably won't go for it," said one Israeli official, "but he might if it looks like it was his own idea." The Palestinian Authority chairman has for years threatened to proclaim a state unilaterally but seems to have dropped the threat since the al-Aksa intifada erupted late last September.

Israeli sources also suggest Sharon will let Arafat know that in exchange for 100-percent effort to curb violence — and results that reflect that effort — Israel would be willing to do something dramatic, such as fully withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.

But Sharon is only offering to make these concessions as incremental, confidence-building measures. He knows better than to purse the comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement that former President Clinton and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak couldn't get Arafat to sign-off on.

Sharon's shifting of hats is part of a strategy called "concerted unilateralism," and involves each side taking actions in coordination with the other but without formal agreements. The approach is championed by Richard Haass, a top Middle East policy advisor to President Bush Sr. and now chief of policy planning in Bush Jr.'s State Department.

As part of the arrangement, Israel would turn over additional territory to make the new "mini-state" contiguous, and Palestinians would not have to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from one area to another.

Sharon is the first Middle East leader to meet with the new President Bush, but it is not their first meeting. Sharon helped show Bush around during his November 1999 visit to Israel when both were just hopefuls. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is coming to Washington early next month, followed by Jordan's King Abdullah.

One name so far not on the invitation list is the most frequent foreign visitor to the White House during the Clinton years — Arafat. He is no favorite in this administration, thanks to his enthusiastic support for Saddam Hussein and his role in fomenting the present violence.

The administration is stalling on a Washington visit as a signal that it first wants to see some tangible results on its demands that he stop the violence and incitement.

Sharon's advisors are counseling him not to come to Washington with a shopping list. Too often Israeli leaders are seen as mooches looking for more money, more technology and more weapons, they're saying; on this trip, they advise, he should concentrate on building personal rapport with Bush and his top advisors.

That is especially important in light of Sharon's unhappy history with the first Bush administration. He has to convince Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld that he intends to live up to his newly minted image as a pragmatist — not his old one as "the bulldozer" — and that he's making U.S.-Israel relations a top priority.

But that doesn't mean he won't be asking Bush for the $450 million in supplemental assistance Clinton promised last year to help cover the costs of the Lebanon withdrawal and counter the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction being developed in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Sharon will also be lobbying for the $75 million in the package for Jordan, and he will stress boosting aid to the kingdom, which he strongly feels needs and deserves it.

One of the things holding up the aid package, however, was Clinton's inclusion of $225 million for Egypt. Congress is reluctant to help Egypt, which is seen increasingly as working against American interests in the region, particularly the peace process and efforts to contain Iraq.

Sharon will also make a perfunctory appeal for clemency for Jonathan Pollard, but the chances of getting the convicted spy released are slim to none in light of the longstanding opposition of Cheney, Rumsfeld and other GOP luminaries.

Syria will be on the premier's agenda as well. He wants Washington to continue pressing Damascus to rein in Hezbollah and keep it from opening a second military front on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

He also wants Washington to once again block Syria's election to a two-year term as one of 10 non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council when it comes up later this year. It is unclear how Bush will respond since he is also courting Syrian support for his new Iraqi sanctions policy.

Sharon also wants Bush to continue American opposition to Arab demands for an international peacekeeping force in the West Bank and Gaza. In return, Sharon might be receptive to Bush's appeal to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

The administration has repeatedly called for relaxing the economic pressures and the restrictions on movement, and to turn over the tax money owed to the Palestinian Authority, which it fears is on the brink of economic collapse and chaos. The Israeli aim has been to pressure Arafat — directly and through the complaints of his own people — but the policy has produced disappointing results.

Although Arafat has publicly rejected all calls to halt the fighting, Sharon loosened some restrictions in recent days and probably will lift others to help make sure his meetings with Bush next week begin on a positive note.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.