Ariel Sharon is now contemplating annexation of half of the West Bank. So The Washington Times reports, and so Israel's Foreign Minister confirms. And if Sharon is that cocky, who can blame him? Indeed, why does he not simply annex it all?
After all, who is going to stop him?
Certainly not the Americans. In short order, Sharon has put Arafat under arrest, smashed his Palestinian Authority, killed hundreds of his fighters, locked up thousands more in camps and jails, eclipsed his rival Netanyahu, become the most popular man in Israel, and bested the president of the United States in a face-off, as the president conceded defeat by declaring him a "man of peace."
For the old warhorse, it doesn't get any better than this.
For the president, however, the price has been exorbitant. His humiliation by Sharon has left in ruins his policy of moving the Middle East war onto a political track, to keep the Arab nations allied and cooperating in his war on terror.
Now the Arabs have begun to bail out. The king of Morocco stiffed Secretary Colin Powell, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was indisposed when Powell came through Cairo, and a confidante of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has told The New York Times, "The perception in the Middle East, from the far left to the far right, is that America is totally sponsoring Sharon -- not Israel's policies, but Sharon's policies -- and anyone who tells you less is insulting your intelligence."
The confidante was blunt in his assessment of the president: "[Bush] made a strategic conscious decision to go with Sharon, so your national interest is no longer our national interest; now we don't have joint national interests. What it means is that you go your way, and we will go ours, economically, militarily and politically -- and the anti-terror coalition would collapse ..."
The Saudis are probably bluffing. But if they are not, and if the president cannot change the perception that he cannot stand up to Sharon and bring him around to negotiate with the Palestinians, we may be headed for an oil boycott, expulsion of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia and a strategic disaster in the war on terror.
For Bush, the hourglass is running out. The peace option, forging a Middle East settlement to keep the Arab states allied with us, is closing. Brimming with confidence, bristling with defiance, Sharon is not going to give up the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Gaza to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, because he does not believe in Oslo, land-for-peace, the Barak Plan, the Taba Plan or the Saudi Plan. He believes in Eretz Israel, and he believes the Palestinian Authority is a nest of terrorists that ought to be eradicated, not rewarded with a state.
The president's dillemma is this: If he could not convince Ariel Sharon to stop rampaging through the West Bank, how is he going to persuade Sharon to surrender the West Bank? And if Bush cannot get Sharon to a conference table, to talk land for peace, he cannot keep Arab cooperation in his war on terror, let alone for a war on Iraq.
Indeed, how and when does President Bush propose to take on Iraq? Seven months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, President Bush's father had driven him out with a U.S.-led army of 500,000 men and 2,000 warplanes. But seven months after 9-11, George W. Bush has no army in the Persian Gulf, no allies, no authorization from the Security Council and no declaration of war from Congress, and public enthusiasm for a march on Baghdad has begun to wane. Has Bush missed the bus?
Ironically, by acceding to the War Party's demand that he give Sharon a free hand, President Bush may have shattered the Arab coalition he needs to launch the War Party's invasion of Iraq.
The time is fast approaching when Bush is going to have to choose among allies. If he sides 100 percent with Sharon and refuses to use his leverage to force Israel to talk and trade land for peace, his own reputation in the Arab world will come to resemble that of Sharon, and no Arab nation will be able to be seen as an ally of the United States. But if he chooses to confront Sharon and try to force him to give the West Bank to the Palestinians, he will face a firestorm inside his own party -- and accusations from Democrats that has is forcing Israel to submit to terror.
How the president resolves this conflict will determine whether he succeeds or fails in his war on terror, and perhaps whether he succeeds or fails as president. In making such decisions, one consideration has to be paramount: the national interests of the United States.