SHARON WINS BIG WITH BUSH
By Ron Kampeas
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
April 14, 2004
Washington — One historic concession deserves another.
Just four months after Israeli 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 by recognizing
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 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
The statement, reiterated in a letter to Sharon,
represents the first time the U.S. government has
provided a formal commitment to Israel’s claim on
parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinians had agreed to Israel’s claim to some
settlements in exchange for land swaps in non-binding
negotiations in 2000-2001 shepherded by then-President
But Bush’s commitment came without any mention of land
from Israel and was widely seen as a significant shift
in U.S. policy in the region.
According to a senior Israeli official, land swaps
weren’t even discussed this time around.
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.” For his part, Sharon
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 May 2 Likud Party referendum
on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and other
Likud figures have vowed to challenge any uprooting of
In a mutual admiration session extraordinary even by
election-year standards, each man essentially
recommended the other to his electorate. “In all these
years, I have never met a leader as committed as you
are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and
the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists,”
Sharon said, gazing into Bush’s eyes.
Bush was even clearer in his endorsement. “He’s a bold
leader. That’s what people want. They want
leadership,” Bush said of Sharon in remarks addressed
to Israeli cameras.
And in case the Likud slogan factory missed the
message, he added: “I’m confident the Israeli people
appreciate that kind of leadership.”
It was Sharon, however, who clearly had the upper
When talks on the dimensions of a withdrawal began in
February, the Americans rejected out of hand any
recognition of Israeli claims in the West Bank.
Subsequently, U.S. officials said they would consider
such a recognition depending on the breadth of the
According to a senior Israeli official, the
disengagement plan Sharon presented to Bush calls for
an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip and
four settlements in the West Bank.
The settlements, encompassing 500 settlers, include
Ganim, Homesh, Kadim and Sanur, all in the northern
West Bank. The withdrawal from these settlements would
provide contiguity for the Palestinians between Jenin
and Nablus, a major Palestinian concern.
The official said any future withdrawal would depend
on how the Palestinians respond to this proposal and
whether they live up to their commitments.
The official also indicated that Sharon had been
prepared to offer a larger West Bank withdrawal, but
didn’t have to present that option because the U.S.
administration accepted the more limited offering.
In a sign of how confident Sharon was of his triumph,
just before he left for Washington he upped the number
of settlement blocs Israel would claim from three to
five, throwing in the combustible Hebron bloc.
The other four settlement blocs Sharon has said Israel
will permanently claim are Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev
and Gush Etzion, all bedroom communities to Jerusalem;
and Ariel, in the central West Bank.
Furthermore, no one expected Bush to so explicitly
bury years of U.S. policy, which traditionally said
all the land Israel captured in 1967 was up for
At best, Bush was expected to recognize vague
“demographic realities.” Instead, he said it was
“unrealistic” to expect Israel to return to its
Bush moreover threw in an endorsement of Israel’s
controversial security barrier as it is now routed.
Just last summer, Bush had been strongly skeptical of
Israeli claims that the barrier was not permanent, but
he now appeared to accept them at face value. “The
barrier being erected by Israel as a part of that
security effort should, as your government has stated,
be a security rather than political barrier,” he said.
Finally, Bush expressed his most emphatic rejection to
date of the Palestinian demand that Arab refugees and
their descendants be allowed to return to land in
Israel that they left in 1948. “It seems clear that an
agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a
solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of
any final-status agreement will need to be found
through the establishment of a Palestinian state and
the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than
Israel,” he said.
Sharon gave very little in return. Against Bush’s
repeated assurances that the Gaza withdrawal would
spur forward the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan and
its goal of a Palestinian state, Sharon referred only
obliquely to “your vision” in his public remarks
Prior to leaving Israel, Sharon suggested that his
planned withdrawal could postpone Palestinian dreams
In his letter to Bush, however, Sharon does refer to
Palestinian statehood and the road map, and senior
Israeli officials said the United States and Israel
still share the goal of a Palestinian state at the end
of the process.
Still, the biggest political loser Wednesday appeared
to be the Palestinians, who were paying the price for
a leadership that refused to stop terrorism and never
successfully engaged Bush.
Palestinian leaders understood the historical
dimensions of the day. “He is the first president who
has legitimized the settlements in the Palestinian
territories when he said that there will be no return
to the borders of 1967,” Palestinian Authority Prime
Minister Ahmed Qurei was quoted as saying by Israel’s
Qurei’s outlook was bleak. “We as Palestinians reject
that, we cannot accept that, we reject and refuse it,”
Senior Bush administration officials, however, said
the Palestinians should view the letters as an
opportunity. “What we want is a situation where
Palestinian leaders, committed to democracy and
fighting terror, have a chance to take control of that
territory as a down payment on the way toward a
Palestinian state,” one said. “And we propose to
engage very vigorously with the Palestinian Authority
to try and create the institutions that will allow
them to do that.”