bush , sharon 88.
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'Well, it's certainly an interesting turn of events," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Israel's political upheaval in an interview with CNN's John King on Wednesday.
This "interesting turn of events" does not seem to trouble the US administration. It is seen as no more than another oddity of the shaky democratic system of America's ally in the Middle East. One anchorman on a cable network tried to convey the peculiarity of the situation in Israel by using the following example: "Imagine George Bush quitting the Republican Party."
The complexities of the Israeli political map aside, it is the semantics the administration is dealing with at the moment.
Administration officials made clear this week that the fall of the Israeli coalition government and the early elections will have little or no effect on the Middle East peace process. The big decisions have already been taken: Disengagement was completed; the question of Hamas participation in the Palestinian elections has been taken off the table; and the thorny issue of the Gaza border-crossing was resolved by Rice.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, when asked this week if the Rafah crossing agreement could be implemented when Israel was preoccupied with internal politics, said there was nothing to worry about - the process was now in the hands of "working level" officials.
"There really aren't at this point any political decisions that need to be taken at sort of the leadership level," he said.
The fact that there is no pressing issue on the Middle East agenda - and that any push forward in the peace process would have to wait in any case for the January Palestinian elections - is helping the administration follow the upcoming Israeli elections from a distance. This is not to say that there is no interest in the dispute between Sharon and his former political home. On the contrary, Israeli diplomats and other officials reported this week that their American counterparts were anxious to learn what exactly is going on "over there": what Sharon's chances are outside the Likud; what Bibi is going to do; and who is Amir Peretz?
Polls published this week in Israel may explain America's composure concerning Israel's political "big bang." If the polls are reliable, the government that will rule Israel after March 28 will be pretty much the same as the existing one - either Sharon on his own or Sharon with Labor. Whichever way it is sliced, it will be a government committed to the road map. And this is all that interests Washington.
IN HIS press conference this week, Sharon mentioned the road map time and again, stating that it is the only plan he will obey. This platform can make him the ideal candidate in the eyes of the American administration, but not the only one.
Bush administration critics, especially those from the Left, sometimes use the term "Likudniks" when describing senior neoconservatives (usually Jewish) in the administration. These so-called "Likudniks" are supposedly responsible for dragging the US to war with Iraq, against its own interests.
But neither Bush nor his senior advisers are "Likudniks," not in the old Sharon-led Likud or in the post-"big bang" party. True, the administration feels comfortable with Sharon, and over the years, the president has developed a certain unlikely relationship with the Israeli leader. But the bottom line is that Bush, if asked, would probably welcome any Israeli leader who would pledge allegiance to the road map and agree to move forward with the peace process, even at a moderate pace.
In practical terms, this means that the US could live easily with either Sharon or Peretz. Netanyahu would be seen as somewhat of a problem, since he did not support disengagement from Gaza, and would probably dispute the validity of the road map, if elected.
While formally the US always sticks to the rule that elections in democratic societies are an internal process that the US has no part in, history is full of examples of American meddling in elections and favoring one candidate over another.
In Israel it was former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir who was first to suffer the political outcome of a public dispute with the US. Shamir refused to freeze settlements in return for American loan guarantees. And president George H.W. Bush made it known to the Israeli public that the stubbornness of its leader was preventing the country from receiving billions of dollars in loan guarantees needed for the absorption of Russian Jews. The Israeli voters got the message and showed Shamir the way out, electing Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.
President Bill Clinton tried a similar trick twice and failed in both instances. In 1996, he convened the Sharm e-Sheikh summit to help then prime minister Shimon Peres, who was losing popularity because of the increasing terror attacks against Israelis. The summit failed to achieve the desired result and Peres lost the elections to Binyamin Netanyahu. Clinton tried again in 2000, this time in an attempt to save prime minister Ehud Barak. Though he had promised Yasser Arafat not to point any fingers in the event that the Camp David summit were to fail, he publicly blamed Arafat for the failure, hoping that doing so would help Barak. It didn't. Barak lost heavily to Sharon.
If President Bush is interested in helping Sharon before the elections, he can follow two avenues. The first would be to refrain from putting any pressure on Israel until the elections. Bush is not known for pressuring Israel in any situation, so it safe to speculate that he will be able to take this route in the next few months as well.
The second is by approving the special aid package of $1.2 billion for the development of the Negev and Galilee. The approval of this sum can go a long way in Israeli politics and can be used by Sharon to show the voters how his good relations with the US are essential for the future of Israel.
Israel and the US recently resumed discussions on the special aid package, but it is not clear if it can move forward before the elections even if Bush gives it the green light. This special aid has not yet found a legislative vehicle it can ride on and most probably it will need to be part of a supplemental budget request sent to Congress. Such a request is not yet in the making and might not be ready before the Israeli elections.
In the meantime, the administration does not appear to see any urgency in helping Sharon. As long as the polls in Israel keep showing that the pro-road map candidates are in the lead, Washington feels no sense of alarm.
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