If President Bush is visibly agonizing over this Mideast crisis, who can blame him? For the president is facing a painful and stark choice -- between doing what is right for America, and doing what is angrily demanded of him by Ariel Sharon and the War Party in the United States.
Incited by the savage suicide attacks over Passover, Sharon sent his army rampaging onto the West Bank, shooting up Arafat's headquarters, killing Palestinians by the score, and igniting a storm of protest from our friends and allies. Why, they demand to know of us, does the president not reign in the raging bull of Ramallah?
The president's problem: If he denounces Sharon and demands he pull back from the West Bank, he will dynamite his political coalition at home and call down a firestorm within his own party.
Nevertheless, the president must separate America's policy from Sharon's policy. For, if he does not, his own and America's standing in an Arab world of 300 million will come to resemble that of Sharon. The president must not let this happen. For, as a global power, the United States has strategic interests in the Middle East and Islamic world that are far greater than, and far different than, those of Israel.
America's interests dictate a peace where Arabs recognize Israel's right to exist, within secure and defensible borders, but Israel also recognizes Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestine's capital in Arab East Jerusalem. Absent these concessions, on both sides, there can be no peace, there will be no peace.
But Ariel Sharon does not believe in
that peace. When the United States embraced the Oslo accords and Prime Minister Rabin's offer of land-for-peace, when we endorsed Ehud Barak's bold offer to the Palestinians, when President Bush welcomed the Saudi peace plan, Sharon opposed them all, rejected them all, trashed them all, fought them all. Sharon's vision is not America's vision. We must make that known to the world.
The Israel people have a right to elect whomever they wish, but Isreal's leader has no automatic right to play America's hand in the Middle East. And if we permit Sharon to play our hand, he will drag our reputation through the same blood and mud through which he has dragged his own for 40 years.
Israel is America's ally in the war on terror, but Sharon's war on the Palestinians is not America's war -- and if we are to play the role of peacemaker, of honest broker in the Middle East conflict, we cannot give Ariel Sharon America's blank check.
America is not hated in that part of the world where we were once respected because we are democratic, prosperous and free. We are hated because of a deepening perception that the United States cannot conduct a policy independent of Israel's. We are hated because we have provided Israel with the weapons it has used not only to defeat Arab armies, but to annex Arab land and crush Palestinian hopes.
The president must erase the perception that Americans are Sharon's silent partners in killing Palestinian dreams of a nation of their own on land on which their fathers have lived for 1,000 years.
Why does the president not make clear these crucial differences? Because when he has tried -- suggesting, for example, that Sharon's earlier invasion of the West Bank was "not helpful" -- the president has been savaged by Sharon's apologists and accused of everything from engineering a Munich to courting a second Holocaust.
Last September, Sharon openly suggested that Bush was acting like Neville Chamberlain, selling out Israel the way Chamberlain sold out the Czechs. This was a vile slander of an American president by a foreign leader, but Sharon got away with it.
The president must understand that what Sharon and the neoconservative War Party are slavoring for is what the latter call "World War IV," a war with America and Israel on one side, and all the enemies of Israel in the Arab and Islamic world on the other -- a war that could bring down every pro-American regime in the region and usher in the war of civilizations the president has sought since September 11 to avoid.
The Sharonites are the mirror image of Hamas and Hezbollah. They, too, do not want a negotiated peace. They, too, want all this settled in the clarity of war -- a big war. But we cannot let them conflate our war on terror with Sharon's war on the Palestinians, which they are avidly seeking to do, as they drag America toward the edge of the abyss.