rice sharon at dinner298.
(photo credit: American Embassy in Israel [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to cancel her visit to Asia because of Prime Minister Sharon's condition shows just how concerned the US administration is about the situation in the Middle East following Sharon's stroke.
Rice, said spokesman Sean McCormack, put off her trip because she felt "it was the right thing to do," due to the "situation in the Middle East." She also spoke on the phone with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday and remains in close contact with Sharon's adviser Dov Weissglas.
On Thursday, US President George Bush offered warm wishes for Sharon's health in a speech in Washington to university students: "Our nation sends our deepest sympathies to Ariel Sharon... We pray for his recovery. He's a good man, a strong man, a man who cared deeply about the security of the Israeli people and a man who had a vision for peace. May God bless him."
For the Bush administration, Sharon's illness is far more than a personal issue - it is no less than a "situation," demanding close watch and careful attention. An administration that has based its Middle East policy on one person now finds itself in a desperate need to reinvent this policy and adapt it to the new reality.
The Bush policy toward the region, although focused on Sharon, was built on three pillars, each representing a regional player: Yasser Arafat, who was seen as the root cause for Palestinian terrorism and whose removal was viewed as essential before proceeding with any kind of peace process; Sharon, considered by Washington as the only leader who could lead the Israeli people to concessions that would enable a two-state solution; and Bush himself, whose support for the region's leaders (Sharon and later PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas) would allow them to advance.
Arafat's death last year gave the US the needed foundation on the Palestinian side, while the American administration succeeded in playing the role of endorsing and supporting moderates on both sides. But the Israeli pillar became shaky.
After the disengagement plan was introduced, Sharon and Bush maintained a "don't ask, don't tell" policy; Bush didn't ask Sharon what he intended to do after the Gaza withdrawal and Sharon didn't volunteer the information, other than vaguely saying that Israel would adhere to the road map.
But when Sharon said "road map," he meant, as he noted publicly many times in the past months, that it was time for the Palestinians to fight violence and dismantle terrorist infrastructures before moving to phase one of that plan.
The Bush administration never adopted this approach, but did not contradict it either, fearing the negative impact of such a dispute on Sharon's stand in Israel. Although the US joined Israel in demanding the Palestinians act against terrorism, they still wanted to see a parallel movement on Israel's side, specifically on the issues of outposts, settlements and roadblocks.
The Americans believed Sharon understood the need for further Israeli concessions and thought he would take such steps after securing his government in the March elections. A Western diplomat said this week that while the Europeans were trying in the past months to get the US to pressure Sharon into outlining more specifically his post-disengagement plans, the answer they kept getting was that there was no need to worry, Sharon would take action after the elections.
But what Sharon's plans really were is now a guessing matter. The US is left without a practical strategy for the Middle East and needs to redefine its priorities.
On the Israeli side, the US administration will have to forge a meaningful relationship with Olmert and the new Israeli leadership, trying on the one hand to lend them support and backing, but at the same time ensuring that Sharon's legacy, which in American eyes meant moving forward to a two-state solution, will continue.
On the Palestinian side things are even more delicate. The US would like to help Abbas in light of the upcoming elections, but cannot put any pressure on Israel. The US is expected to make sure Israel allows voting to take place in east Jerusalem - an act seen as supportive of Abbas and Fatah - but cannot promise the Palestinian leadership any significant gestures before the elections.
This balancing act is now in the hands of Rice and Bush. In the coming weeks and months it is likely that they will try to gently embrace Olmert without harming Abbas's standing, and at the same time will try to support the Palestinian leadership without putting Olmert in a difficult political situation.
For the Bush administration, which isn't known for mastering the skill of subtle diplomacy, the near future poses a great challenge. Not only will they have to work hard to preserve Sharon's legacy, they will have to first ensure that all sides agree on what this legacy really was.