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Limits on Bush, Sharon

PRESIDENT BUSH will need to exercise both firmness and subtlety when he receives Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today at the White House.


Bush will have to be firm in refusing to give Sharon the assurances he has been seeking on final-status issues such as the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. Such guarantees are not Bush's to give. For good reason, it has long been US policy that the most contentious sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- borders, Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees -- must be resolved in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sharon needs public support from Bush to win a pending Likud Party referendum on his Gaza withdrawal plan. If Sharon fails to win the Likud vote, he will have little chance of prevailing in his coalition Cabinet or in the Knesset. And to win what promises to be a close contest within Likud, Sharon needs to counter criticism from Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the former Likud leader and aspiring successor to Sharon, who has objected that Sharon is getting nothing in return for quitting Gaza.

Sharon arrives in Washington in a politically weakened condition. Not the least of his reasons for asking Bush to grant Israel crucial concessions as a reward for leaving Gaza is the possibility that he may be indicted soon for fraud and breach of trust. Because government prosecutors have recommended that Israel's attorney general indict him, Sharon is in a hurry to achieve something that could revive his political standing. For this he desperately needs Bush's help.

Bush, who is confronting his own political adversity, would be contradicting not only longstanding US policy but his own commitment to the road map for Mideast peace if he gives Sharon the guarantees he seeks. The road map leads to bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is in such negotiations that Israelis and Palestinians should decide where their final borders will be, which Israeli settlements may remain in the West Bank in exchange for an equivalent land swap, how Jerusalem will serve as the capital for the two states, and what will become of Palestinian refugees after the two sides agree on a permanent end to conflict.

The territory that Sharon wants Bush to guarantee that Israel will never have to cede to a Palestinian state does not belong to the United States. Bush is in no position to take it away from one party and give it to another.

Bush will have to be subtle in the formulation of any letter of assurances to Israel. He should not say anything that would prevent Sharon from pursuing his plan to withdraw from Gaza. But an American president must not presume to give Israel land or peace terms that can be decided upon only at the negotiating table, by Israelis and Palestinians.

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