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Middle East: Bush, Sharon Meet As Analysts See White House Shift On Arafat

It's no secret that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is a strong ally of Israel. But after yesterday's White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, analysts say Bush appears to be shifting his position regarding embattled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As RFE/RL reports from Washington, it may not be good news for Arafat.

Washington, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For months, analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sought to bring U.S. President George W. Bush around to his view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is not a reliable peace partner and should be escorted -- perhaps by an Israeli tank -- from the political stage.

But while strongly pro-Israel and highly critical of Arafat, the Bush administration had publicly resisted the idea of removing the Palestinian leader. In particular, Secretary of State Colin Powell often says that whatever his shortcomings, Arafat is Israeli's only true negotiating partner.

Powell, who held talks with Arafat last month, is the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with the Palestinian leader since former President Bill Clinton. Bush has never met with Arafat.

And after a visit by Sharon to the White House yesterday -- his sixth since Bush took office in early 2001 -- analysts say the Israeli leader appears to close to achieving a diplomatic victory in Washington that could prove to be a watershed event in the tortuous history of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

But analysts warn that Sharon's success -- that is, convincing the White House to finally dismiss Arafat as politically irrelevant -- may actually open the door for increased Arab extremism in the future.

Yesterday, Bush was clearly more in tune with Sharon as they fielded questions from the White House press than the day before (9 June), when he hosted Hosni Mubarak at his Camp David presidential retreat but rebuffed the Egyptian president's call for a plan to declare a Palestinian state early next year.

Unsurprisingly, Sharon started things off by saying that Israel cannot negotiate with Arafat, whom it sees as corrupt, autocratic, and complicit in the 20-month uprising against Israeli civilians: "We must have a partner for negotiations. At the present time, we don't see yet a partner. We hope there will be a partner there, with whom we'll be able to move forward, first to achieve a durable peace in the area, and second of course, to provide the security of the citizens of our countries."

A former general, Sharon has responded to Palestinian suicide bombings with periodic military incursions into the Arab West Bank, regularly encircling Arafat in his Ramallah compound. Sharon says the incursions are needed for security reasons, and Israel moved into the West Bank again on 9 June, with tanks encircling Arafat's compound again. This came after the building was largely wrecked by Israeli bulldozers and explosive charges last week following a suicide bombing that killed 17 people in northern Israel.

Last month, following U.S. and Israeli calls for reforms, Arafat acknowledged the need to introduce democratic changes into the Palestinian Authority and said elections could be held next year. The Bush administration tentatively welcomed such moves.

But at the White House yesterday, the message was decidedly different. Bush offered no criticism of Sharon's new military offensive, and then raised eyebrows when asked whether Israel's reported intentions to expel Arafat from the region should be seen as a positive policy: "I don't think Mr. Arafat is the issue. I think the issue is the Palestinian people. And if I have to express myself, I'm disappointed that he has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence. And so, therefore, what we've got to do is work to put institutions in place which will allow for a government to develop which will bring confidence not only to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians."

Michael Dunn is a historian and editor of "The Middle East Journal," a Washington publication. He says that the Bush administration has long been divided in its policy toward the Middle East conflict, with people like Powell seeking more balanced engagement and others preferring to simply back Sharon as events play out: "We've been saying things like, 'It's not up to us to choose the leader of the Palestinians.' It sounds as if the administration is moving away from that at the moment."

Ted Galen Carpenter agrees. An analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, Carpenter says Sharon's trips to Washington have been successful: "In terms of aligning U.S. policy with Israeli policy, I think he [Sharon] is achieving some success."

On 9 June with Mubarak, Bush told reporters that there was "plenty of talent" among potential new Palestinian leaders.

Both analysts agree that a new Palestinian leadership could emerge, but they expressed concern that any forced ouster of Arafat could eventually backfire on both Israel and the United States.

Carpenter says that Arafat is quickly becoming less and less relevant, but adds that with his departure, rather than a moderate leadership, a more radical Palestinian movement could fill the power vacuum he leaves behind: "I think both Bush and Sharon better be careful what they wish for. There may come a time where they will long for the good old days of dealing with someone like Yasser Arafat, as bizarre as that may sound. But lurking in the wings are elements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and they may eventually dominate the scene on the West Bank and Gaza."

Dunn agrees. He says a lot of Palestinian and Arab leaders, perhaps including Mubarak, would like to see Arafat fade away. But he adds that if Arafat goes by way of an Israeli boot, it would be counter-productive.