Bush turns heat on Sharon in aftermath of summit

WASHINGTON — If you're confused about this week's developments in U.S.-Israel diplomacy, don't worry — you're not alone.

Only days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to score a decisive victory in the Battle of the Mideast Summits, reports emerged that the administration is cranking up the pressure against Israel's controversial security fence, an issue that seemed defused at the summit.

And although the administration was clearly disappointed with the summit performance of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, it seems increasingly sympathetic to Abbas' claim that he is too weak to dismantle terror groups like Hamas — a key requirement of the administration's Mideast "road map."

But there's no paradox here.

In fact, Sharon won a decisive victory in the twin summits, in part because of a Palestinian leader who has not learned the ABCs of managing relations with Washington while the Israeli veteran has earned a doctorate.

But more recent developments also point to President Bush's increasingly deft treatment of Israel: a subtle blend of friendship and measured pressure that avoids open clashes and keeps disputes civil and behind closed doors, all the while pushing the balky government in Jerusalem along the route laid out by the road map.

In the dueling summits, Sharon started with some huge advantages — including a president who clearly puts Israel on the side of the angels in the all-consuming anti-terror war, a Congress whose leaders are often more hawkish than Sharon himself, and rising support among the religious right, a key element in Bush's political base.

Sharon also came bearing gifts, including the release of more Palestinian prisoners, and eased checkpoints and additional money transfers to the Palestinian Authority — a modest, carefully constructed package that didn't generate any real trouble within his right-wing government, but it offered just enough to keep Washington relatively happy.

Abbas, on the other hand, arrived with a litany of complaints about Israel and almost no concessions of his own.

On the contrary, he infuriated the administration by plainly stating he will not dismantle the terror groups, a key demand of the road map he claimed to accept. Amazingly, he said he expects those groups will transform themselves into democratic factions within a new Palestinian state, leading many to question his grip on reality.

Nor was that kind of message well received in Congress, where, despite overwhelming pro-Israel sentiment, many lawmakers were willing to give the new Palestinian leader a chance to prove that he isn't Yasser Arafat.

Abbas came to town with a golden opportunity to bolster U.S.-Palestinian relations and to call Sharon's bluff on issues such as settlements. But he squandered it through a mixture of weakness, bad advice and diplomatic ineptness, doing little to reinforce Bush's claim that he is a "man of peace."

Still, by the time Sharon was back home, there were signs the administration was upping the ante on several issues, including the security fence — pressure that may already be forcing Israel to change the route of the controversial barrier and possibly even temporarily halt construction.

There were also indications the State Department will cut new U.S. loan guarantees by the amount spent extending the fence into Palestinian territory.

Neither side is confirming the pressure; both are anxious to keep any disagreements out of the public eye — a rare occurrence in U.S.-Israel disputes.

Thus the seeming contradiction: a successful summit for Sharon but also a steady and subtle rise in pressure from Washington.

That reflects something new in U.S. policy: the use of carefully calibrated, behind-the-scenes pressure, combined with all the public symbols of a warm and close relationship. Bush the father wielded a diplomatic bludgeon in the early 1990s; the son is using a scalpel, with a warm, friendly bedside manner.

The administration remains committed to its road map and to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005; it also remains predisposed to accept Sharon as a partner in the war on terror while distrusting the old Palestinian leadership and doubting the new can take control.

Still, the White House has concluded that without U.S. pressure the Sharon government will stall until the road map collapses of its own weight. At the same time, it knows that too strong pressure will prompt a sharp reaction from Israel and an explosive response from Israel's new best friends here — the religious right and the conservative Republican leadership in Congress.

It's a friendly, measured kind of pressure — and it's being matched by a smart, low-key and disciplined response from the Israeli government.

Both sides understand there is nothing to be gained by conflict; both have reason to question some of the policies of the other but no reason to doubt the friendship.

And Israel understands that while the administration may be pressing both sides to move forward, there is nothing "even-handed" — a dirty word in the pro-Israel lexicon — about its emerging approach to Israel and the Palestinians.

A number of other lawmakers, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leading Democratic presidential contender, quickly joined the angry chorus, and by Wednesday there were signs the State Department was wavering.