Rice stirs tempest in CNN interview

Praises Sharon; accused by faction leaders of bolstering his Kadima party.

rice wags finger 298.88 (photo credit: )
rice wags finger 298.88
(photo credit: )
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outraged Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum on Tuesday when she praised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. The politicians, who saw excerpts from the interview that were broadcast on Channel 1, accused Rice of unfairly helping Sharon's Kadima party win the March 28 election. They said Rice had continued an American tradition of interfering in Israeli elections. Former US president George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, were accused of helping Yitzhak Rabin defeat Yitzhak Shamir in the 1992 election by refusing to give Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees to help Israel absorb Russian immigrants. Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, was criticized for making statements that were seen as an endorsement of Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999. "We believe that Prime Minister Sharon is somebody with a vision for a better life for Israelis based on a two-state solution," Rice said. "He has taken great personal risks; he has also taken great policy risks. He has been very courageous in his decision to withdraw from Gaza and to disengage from it and to do it despite a lot of criticism and a lot of skepticism. Personal courage matters." Likud MK Uzi Landau, an ally of new Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, called Rice's statements "blatant interference in the democratic affairs of a democratic country." "The American administration interfered on behalf of Peres in 1996 and Bibi won, so I hope that they continue to interfere now and that the same happens," he added. Former minister Natan Sharansky of the Likud, who has met several times with Rice, suggested that the US should be helping Netanyahu if it hoped to advance its interests in the Middle East. "It's important for the American leaders to support politicians who believe in the possibility of democratizing the Arab world, and the candidate for prime minister who best reflects the American viewpoint on that is Netanyahu," he said. "I'm glad that the Likud finally has a leader who believes in democratizing the Middle East, and so should the US." Former ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval said Rice's comments were aimed at Labor and not the Likud. He said the Bush administration viewed Labor chairman Amir Peretz as a "left-wing socialist," which went against the grain of the Republican Party. "Peretz has disavowed the road map, which is the apple in the eye of President [George W.] Bush," Shoval said. "This [Labor] is not a party that the Bush administration can work with." Labor MK Yuli Tamir, who is close to Peretz, said Rice's comments would not help advance America's case in Israel. "America has to stand for Israel and not for its government," she said. "I don't remember American intervention in an Israeli election being so personal and so straightforward for one particular candidate." Meretz leader Yossi Beilin said, "The secretary of state's fawning over Sharon strengthens his image as Washington's favorite son." "It could be that Sharon meets the expectations of Bush and Rice, but the question is whether he meets expectations here," he said. "As long as he hides behind the road map to avoid advancing the peace process, he's only encouraging Palestinian violence and delaying peace." National Union leader Benny Elon said that by praising Sharon, "Rice was encouraging him to form a Hamas state in Gaza, which is against the interests of the Jewish people and the world." "It is not the first time that Sharon is following the will of the State Department and not the will of the Jewish people, and it's a sign that he's willing to give the Palestinians all of Judea and Samaria," Elon said.