Seventy-two hours after President Bush told Ariel Sharon to pull out of the West Bank "without delay," the Israeli army was still pounding away at Palestinians in the biggest offensive there since 1967.
"I meant what I said," an exasperated president railed at Sharon Monday afternoon. Yet, still, the Isreali war machine rolled on.
Round one in the clash between the president and prime minister thus goes to Sharon. And before the president puts America's credibility on the line again, he might reconsider. For in any face-off with Sharon, he is likely to be rebuffed again.
And if Bush wants a measure of where Sharon's mind is, he might check out the newest member of Sharon's ruling coalition.
Representing right-wing settlers, the National Religious Party is headed by charismatic ex-general Effi Eitam, a man of deeply radical views. As the Financial Times reports, Eitam has "urged Israel to destroy the Palestinian Authority, bring Arafat and his associates to trial, and reject any form of Palestinian sovereignty in the occupied territories. The Palestinian state, he said, should be established in Jordan and the Egyptian Sinai desert.
"Eitam also described Israel's Arab citizens ... as a 'cancer'. ... (I)f a war is forced on us, then in war, behave as in war,' he said. 'I can ... see that as a consequence of war, not many Arabs will remain here.'"
In brief, Effi Eitam is an ethnic cleanser cut from the same bolt of cloth as Slobodan Milosevic. Is the president aware of the breadth and depth of the chasm that exists between what he believes is best for America and what Sharon believes is best for Israel?
The president wants a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Sharon believes that authority is a nest of terrorists to be eradicated and openly regrets he did not kill Arafat when he had the chance in 1982.
The president believes in the Oslo formula of land-for-peace and the Saudi plan adopted by the Arab League, which calls for Israel to pull back inside its '67 borders. Sharon rejects Oslo and land-for-peace and looks on the Saudi plan as a formula for Israel's suicide.
President Bush believes Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza are obstacles to peace, that their construction must be halted and their dismantlement begun. As housing minister, Sharon was father to many of these Sharonvilles and has continued to expand them even during this Intifada. And Effi Eitam did not come in to Sharon's coalition to help tear down Jewish settlements.
Whatever one may say of him, the soldier Sharon is a serious man who will go down fighting for what he believes is vital to his country. Does the president have the toughness or tenacity to bend such a man to America's will, or break him, if he believes it vital to America's interests? We're going to find out.
In his coming clash with the president over the terms of a Mideast peace, Sharon sees his place in history, his life's work and his country's survival in the balance. And the politics of the issue dictate that Sharon stand firm. After the Passover massacre, his war on the Palestinians has sent his stock soaring. Some 72 percent of Israelis back his assault on the West Bank cities and camps, and he has become again the most popular man in all of Israel. Why should he back down to George W. Bush?
What leverage does the president have in a showdown with Sharon? If he threatens to withhold the $3 billion in foreign aid Israel annually receives, the president will face a firestorm in Congress and in his own party. Already, his call for Sharon to pull out of the West Bank is tearing at the seams of his political coalition.
Many conservative Christians back Sharon's war. The neocons, who rule the op-ed pages, run the little magazines and contribute most of the TV talking heads, side with Sharon. Conservative talk radio is against Bush on Israel. If the president wants to assess the media firepower he faces, he might look at "Alterman's List," that roster of media heavies -- drawn up by Nation magazine's Eric Alterman -- who reflexively back Israel in any dispute with the Palestinians.
Tony Blankley, one of the wiser heads among Washington pundits, believes the president sent Powell to the Mideast to show the Arabs he is doing his best to restrain Israel and has little expectation of success. But when a president puts his credibility on the line like this, and is brushed off, he is diminished before the world.
As of today, it appears that, like Lola, whatever Israel wants, Israel gets -- and Sharon knows it. And now so, too, does George W. Bush.
If the president is not to be seen in the Arab world as Sharon's poodle, he is going to have to stand up one day on his hind legs and bite his perceived master. Is he up to it? Again, we're going to find out.