WASHINGTON AND BIDU, WEST BANK — By signaling a major shift aligning U.S. policy with Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Bush may have turned Arab and Muslim sentiment further against the U.S. as he seeks the region's help in Iraq.
One thing is clear: By endorsing three aspects of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach to dealing with the Palestinians — Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, permanent retention of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an end to the "right of return" of millions of Palestinian refugees to homes and lands they held in Israel before 1948 — Bush has upended two decades of U.S. policy.
But at the same time, he appears to have cemented the view widely held across Arab states that the U.S. is no longer the "honest broker" it once was in the Middle East. When Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visits the region to solicit help on Iraq, he is likely to hear more about the Arab perception that the U.S. is once again presenting a set of faits accomplis that run counter to Arab positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"With Arabs and Muslims already so suspicious of the U.S. and with the situation in Iraq reaching a critical point, this change could not have come at a worse time," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "This is a flat rejection of the standpoints of moderate Arabs and as such plays into the hands of the radicals and extremists."
The president used Sharon's visit to Washington Wednesday to signal the policy shift. Calling Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza "courageous," Mr. Bush said that "realities on the ground" made it unrealistic to expect Israel to withdraw all settlements from West Bank lands it seized in 1967, or to accept the return of millions of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 partition.
At the State Department, officials say the "good" of the new policy is being lost in the focus on the controversial. But they acknowledge that the announcement will not make a smooth visit to the region for Mr. Armitage, who plans to visit Gulf countries next week. "The withdrawal from Gaza is good, that's a positive thing," says a State Department official. "The bad side is to say we're not going to prejudge final-status issues, and then to rush headlong into that. It wasn't necessary to do that now."
The question of why the shift was made this week turned many analysts to the political realities Bush and Sharon face: Bush an election in November, and Sharon a crucial vote in May by his Likud Party on his disengagement plan. American endorsement of so many of Sharon's goals will certainly boost the prime minister.
At the same time, the Bush administration's closer embrace of Israel is seen helping the president with Jewish voters, who traditionally have stuck with Democrats. Some political analysts think it could be enough to tilt the vote in such states as Florida or Pennsylvania.
But analysts like Mr. Gerges say what may be good politics does not make for good strategic policy for a region the administration has placed at the top of its priority list. "What we're seeing is an approach that is motivated by short-term political goals rather than by a long-range, strategic vision," he says.
In Israel, Bush's support is already translating into a significant political boost for Sharon. The prime minister's close ally, deputy premier Ehud Olmert, hailed the U.S. shift as "a historic achievement." And at least one minister who had been wavering on the Gaza pullout plan, Tzipi Livne, announced Thursday that she would support it. Inside the red-roofed cottages of Givat Ze'ev, one of at least six West Bank settlements Sharon has said will remain in Israeli hands, there was satisfaction Thursday with the U.S. shift.
"Bush is being very realistic, and when you are realistic, it is easier to solve things," says David Sharabi, a resident. "We saw that no matter how much we tried to placate the Palestinians, it did not work. Bush understood that after all of the games by Clinton and others there was a need to tell the truth. You simply cannot uproot tens of thousands of Israelis."
The problem is that Palestinians feel the same way — and believe they have international law on their side. "Does (Bush) own the Palestinians and the rights of the Palestinians that he can give them away?" asks Khaled Maadi, an unemployed catering supplier in Bidu, an Arab town that has been the site of anti-Israeli protests.
Most Palestinians say they expect to quickly become the losers from the unprecedented U.S. endorsement of Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank. "Israel now thinks it has a green light for more killing, more checkpoints, more land theft and more settlement building," says Sai'd Yakin, a Bidu resident and activist in the Fatah movement.
Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat vows that "the Palestinian people will not give up seeking their freedom and independent state, with Jerusalem as its capital, whether they (Bush and Sharon) like it or not."