Save your words, Sharon, Bush wants action instead

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a mini-peace offensive last week, declaring his readiness to meet with the new Palestinian prime minister and to dismantle some settlements. That was an encouraging move but not enough to satisfy the Bush administration.

The president has signaled he isn't willing to wait until the new Mahmoud Abbas government clears Sharon's hurdles to see Israel's response to the international "road map" for creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon has repeatedly said he is willing to make "tough decisions" but not until he sees some tangible results from the Palestinians, particularly in stopping the violence, shutting down Hamas and the terrorist groups, and confiscating illegal weapons.

Bush wants the same things, but he also wants actions, not words, from the Israeli leadership demonstrating it welcomes the new Palestinian leadership. The administration has given Sharon's aides a list of confidence-building measures, some of which can be done right away as a gesture to Abbas.

Bush's list includes releasing prisoners, freezing settlement construction, increasing the number of job permits for Palestinians, lifting travel restrictions, easing daily Palestinian life, transferring tax revenues held in escrow, ending home demolitions and withdrawing troops from Palestinian areas.

The reluctant Sharon has several aces up his sleeve.

The two biggest are Yasser Arafat and domestic American politics.

Arafat, unwilling to go quietly, had tried desperately to hold onto power by blocking appointments of Abbas loyalists to the new government and stalling the dismissal of his own cronies with reputations for incompetence and corruption.

A big risk is that Abbas will make too many compromises with Arafat at the expense of his own credibility as a reformer and wind up being simply old wine in an old bottle but with a new label.

On the U.S. domestic scene, Sharon will look to Jewish organizations to run interference, protecting him from unwanted American pressure, but he may have some problems there.

Few Jewish groups will be willing to risk confrontation with a president who just vanquished one of Israel's worst enemies, is giving another — Syria — a diplomatic pummeling, has pressed Palestinians to dump Arafat, and is waging a multifront war against terror that targets many of Israel's other enemies.

They fear looking unpatriotic and ungrateful — and losing access to top levels of an administration they have praised as very friendly to Israel.

For mainstream groups, such as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, losing favor could be the greatest threat of all.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice just headlined the group's annual policy conference. It was a tangible reward for good behavior that is valuable to the organization's power image and voracious fund-raising.

This administration has a reputation for vindictiveness — those who don't show the proper fealty won't get the stars to come out to dazzle their big money people, won't get invited to the prestige meetings and may not even get their phone calls returned.

That frightens — and stifles — the big organizations, but the fringe groups, such as the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, are not intimidated by confrontation. In fact, they thrive on it.

Bush is sending the word to Jewish leaders that he is very serious about pushing the peace process, that it is not just an empty gesture to mollify Tony Blair, the Europeans and the Arabs.

For Sharon it's a case of "be careful what you wish for; it could happen." He declared Arafat "irrelevant" and brought Bush over to his side when the president announced last June that Arafat must go. Bush stuck to his word, and now Sharon owes him.

Arafat is being pushed aside, although he is fighting to hold on to as much power as possible. Bush wants to help Abbas and the reformers by producing a quick and positive Israeli response to the new government.

That means Sharon dropping demands that all violence must end before Israel makes any major moves. Bush wants Sharon to bolster Abbas, not hobble him.

Sharon wants to convince Americans that he doesn't need to be pushed to the peace table, and he sent that message in a series of unusual interviews with journalists from left and right; he even hinted he's willing to dismantle some settlements.

Now it's Bush who is likely to demand results, not promises, from Sharon. But if anything is to happen, it will require a bit of friendly persuasion from Washington.

The message to Sharon is coming not only from the State Department, which many on the Israeli right distrust, but from some of Israel's staunchest supporters in the administration. They're saying, you owe this president, big time.

Sharon will tell Bush that each time he has pulled back from cities like Jenin, Tulkarm or Kalkilya, there's been an increase in terrorism.

Washington rejected Sharon's request for changes in the road map — whittled down from 100-plus to 14 — and he was told to take up any amendments with the Palestinians.

Many hurdles lie ahead. Will Abbas be able to break free of Arafat and present Sharon with a serious challenge? Is Sharon going to move quickly to bolster Abbas or hold back and demand an unrealistic level of results? Will Bush lose interest if there is no early progress?

In the past, Bush sent several envoys to the region with vows to keep them there until they produce results. All failed, quickly. Now Powell, a reluctant traveler and Mideast mediator, is vowing to get more personally involved.

The pressures of the 2004 re-election campaign and the need to focus on the economy could tempt Bush to put Middle East peacemaking on the back burner.

That could be a tragedy. Bush's victory in Iraq and his progress in marginalizing Arafat have created a tide in Mideast affairs that could end three years of tragedy and lead to the resumption of real negotiations. Hands-on American leadership is essential if this is not to be another lost opportunity. Big time.

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.