- In the Middle East maelstrom, all parties acknowledge
one fixed point: forceful US diplomatic engagement is essential if the
central Israel-Palestine conflict is ever to be resolved.
- But far from taking the lead over the past four years,
the Bush administration has been mostly led by the nose. The man responsible
for this extraordinary feat is Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
- Mr Sharon was running a "war on terror" when
George Bush was still running a baseball team in Texas. So not surprisingly,
perhaps, it is Mr Bush who, since 9/11, has followed Mr Sharon's example
rather than the other way round. In his many visits to the Bush White House,
Mr Sharon has exerted telling influence on America's post-9/11 agenda.
Knowing Mr Bush was bent on war in Iraq, he helpfully highlighted Saddam
Hussein's links to terrorist groups and financial aid to the families of
Palestinian suicide bombers. Now he eggs on the US in its confrontations
with Israel's enemies, Iran and Syria.
- It was Israel that, as far back as 1967, perfected the
concept of pre-emptive war. It is Mr Sharon, not Mr Bush, who is the present
master of the targeted assassination and mass detention without trial.
It is Israeli military tactics that the US now apes in places like Falluja
- Deeming him unreliable, Mr Sharon refused to deal with
the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat - and Mr Bush followed suit. His
insistence on absolute security as a precondition for negotiations and
his contemptuous dismissal of contrary UN and European views won support
- and a broader, damaging emulation - in Washington.
- Most of all, Mr Sharon's basic contention, that the homeland
is under attack by ruthless forces bent on its utter destruction, has been
adopted wholesale by Mr Bush and applied to the US itself. These politics
of fear now form a central plank in his re-election platform.
- Brent Scowcroft, the national security veteran, recently
described Mr Bush as "mesmerised" by Israel's leader. And for
the most part, it does indeed appear that Sharon policy is Bush policy,
rather than vice versa.
- Whether the issue is Israel's illegal security fence,
unilateral disengagement from Gaza, expanding West Bank settlements, the
fate of the moribund road map for peace, or US vetoes at the UN, Mr Sharon
calls the shots. He has the world's only superpower dancing to his tune.
Unless Mr Sharon loses office - a not impossible scenario given the rebellion
in his Likud party over Gaza - this well-established dynamic is unlikely
to change during a second Bush term.
- Dismayingly for the Palestinians and others opposed to
Mr Sharon's policies, it also seems unlikely that a John Kerry presidential
victory would make any significant difference. Like Mr Bush, Mr Kerry in
theory supports a viable Palestinian state. "The conflict will not
be an afterthought but a priority," he has said.
- But he also wants a new Palestinian leadership as a precondition
for progress. He backs Mr Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, rejects the right
of return, and says it is "unrealistic" to try to reinstate the
1949 armistice lines. These positions coupled with his strongly pro-Israel
Senate record hardly suggest an even-handed approach - or the forceful
US engagement so lacking under Mr Bush.
- "When I am president of the United States, my promise
to the people of Israel will be this," Mr Kerry told the Anti-Defamation
League in May. "We will never pressure you to compromise your security.
We will never expect you to negotiate for peace without a credible partner.
And we will always work to provide political, military and economic help
for your fight against terror.
- "Building a stronger Israel and a stronger America
means working together to combat the terror that threatens us all."
Not much wiggle-room there; and no corresponding list of promises for the
- Mr Bush could not have said it better. As for the guileful
Mr Sharon, he must be laughing all the way to the West Bank.
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