Gaza strategy has consequences for Bush, Kerry, Sharon and Arafat

washington | Could the United States end up responsible for Gaza, a crowded, parched patch of land that successive British, Egyptian and Israeli rulers never truly mastered?

Some pundits are wondering if this could be the result of the historic deal between the President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The agreement traded Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank for U.S. recognition of some Israeli claims to the West Bank and a rejection of any Palestinian refugee return to Israel.

“One wonders whether Bush really appreciates what he is getting himself and the United States into,” Martin Indyk, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East official, wrote Sunday, April 25, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. It concluded, “Welcome to Gaza, Mr. President.”

In the meantime, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), the presumptive Democratic candidate, is able to exploit the challenger’s advantage: He can endorse the deal now and blame any subsequent failure on the incumbent president.

Kerry clearly understood that advantage when he praised Bush for the deal but — not even pausing to breathe — suggested it was doomed to fail.

“What the president did in recognizing the issue of the ‘right of return’ and recognizing the issue of some of the settlements, really recognized the reality on the ground,” Kerry told a gathering of news editors last week. “What I fault the administration for is that they haven’t done enough to create the climate within the Arab world to advance an entity within the West Bank, within the Palestinian Authority, that is capable of delivering a peace.”

Bush administration spokesmen say the United States would assist the Palestinians in getting ready for self-rule, a commitment that would further stretch a diplomatic corps already working overtime in Iraq.

Bush’s acceptance of Sharon’s conditions for the withdrawal was rooted for the most part in the president’s profound disappointment with the Palestinians’ performance during his term.

The Palestinian Authority’s failure to track down terrorists in two cases — a Jerusalem bus bombing on Aug. 19 and an attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip in October — helped persuade Bush to accept Sharon’s principal condition for pulling out of Gaza: Shut the Palestinians out of the process, for now.

In addition to Bush’s conviction that something needed to be done, there were clear electoral considerations to his agreement with Sharon.

Sharon snubbed Kerry while he was in the United States and said Bush was more committed to fighting terrorism than any other president. Additionally, Bush aides persuaded Israel not to take substantial steps toward a withdrawal until after the U.S. election. The thinking was that a delay would exploit the full electoral advantage of the deal: By November, Bush still could say he had unstuck a notoriously mired peace process, but wouldn’t yet have to deal with its repercussions.

That could help, especially in the fight for Jewish votes in swing states, in what is likely to be a close election.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that for all its risks, the agreement has positives that could help Bush, especially with American Jewish voters. “He reinforces in a major way the special bond between Israel and the U.S. and, second, he tries to demonstrate movement on the ground.”

Still, there are signs that the buy-now, pay-later approach might have been premature. Already there have been repercussions.

In Iraq, the top U.N. envoy to the region, Lakhdar Brahimi — a man Bush is depending on for a smooth transition — said the agreement and Israel’s policies were “poisoning” his work. A perception that the agreement with Sharon worsened an already deteriorating situation in Iraq could offset whatever electoral gains Bush wins among Jewish voters.

The two closest U.S. allies in the region, Jordan and Egypt, are furious. King Abdullah II of Jordan abruptly cut short a U.S. visit a day before he was to meet Bush, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — who had just met with Bush at the presidential ranch in Texas before the announcement — told Arab Americans he felt insulted by the deal.

Yet both countries are quietly negotiating favorable U.S. concessions for supporting the deal, and Abdullah will probably be back in May.

U.S. officials, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, now claim that U.S. recognition of Israel’s demands does not necessarily prejudge a negotiated outcome. Some commentators have noted that the U.S. commitments were vague enough to leave the Palestinians ample wiggle room in future negotiations.

Such ambiguity could intensify after a Likud party referendum on the deal.

“After May 2, it may emerge that Bush’s letter and commitments to Sharon were really tactical and designed to help Sharon,” said Joseph Alpher, a U.S.-Israel expert who runs, a Palestinian-Israeli opinion exchange. “It’s possible that we will see backtracking; we’ve already seen damage control.”

It also wasn’t certain that the Likud would pass the deal. “If Sharon loses the referendum, the whole disengagement is jeopardized,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, Kerry repeated his promise of maximum commitment to Israel in his Israel Independence Day message.

“The people of Israel should know that our pledge to a safe and secure Jewish state is unwavering,” he said. “From this enduring friendship will always come the promise of never-ending support. Our commitment must be clear: We should never pressure Israel to compromise its security; never coerce it to negotiate for peace without a credible partner; and always work to provide the political and military support for Israel’s fight against terror.”

Ron Kampeas

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