Sharon wins big with Bush

washington | One historic concession deserves another.

Just four months after Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — the father of the settlement movement — stunned Israelis by pledging to evacuate some settlements, he got his payback from President Bush, who reversed decades of U.S. policy and recognized Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank.

It was compensation, with interest: Sharon had scored perhaps the most stunning diplomatic triumph in the U.S.-Israeli alliance in a generation.

“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” Bush said Wednesday, April 14, at a White House appearance with Sharon after the two leaders met.

“It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

The statement, reiterated in a letter to Sharon, represents the first time that the U.S. government has provided a formal commitment to Israel’s claim on parts of the West Bank.

It was a soaring historical moment fraught with grinding political realities.

Bush needs a Middle East success to bolster a reputation as a bold foreign policy leader that flags with each U.S. casualty in Iraq.

“Iraq points to the need of the administration for some achievement,” said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The administration will want to showcase the Gaza pullout as an example of its success in the region.”

Sharon, for his part, needs to show Israelis that his leadership through some of the nation’s most traumatic years is resulting in a diplomatic breakthrough.

In addition, he faces a Likud Party referendum on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip on May 2 and other leaders of his party have already vowed to challenge any uprooting of settlements.

It was Sharon, however, who clearly had the upper hand.

The disengagement plan Sharon presented to Bush, according to a senior Israeli official, calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank.

Bush, moreover, threw in an endorsement of Israel’s controversial security barrier as it is now routed.

Finally, Bush expressed his most emphatic rejection to date of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to land they left in Israel.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.