WASHINGTON -- One of Washington's leading private power brokers, with intimate contacts inside the Bush administration, suggested a meaningful line for the president of the United States when he met the prime minister of Israel at the White House last Tuesday: "Mr. Sharon, tear down this wall!" In fact, President Bush did not come close.
A self-confident Prime Minister Ariel Sharon encountered no resistance from the president when he made clear he would continue building the "security fence" as a physical barrier between Palestinians and Israelis. Bush's passivity was underscored by a remarkable performance inside Israel at the same time by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The powerful Republican leader, addressing members of the Knesset, did not mention the "wall" in an unqualified call to arms for Israel.
This combination of events was profoundly depressing for those Republicans, in the administration and Congress, who have prayed that George W. Bush would capitalize on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by insisting on a Middle East settlement including a Palestinian state. They feel that the president's intent is pure, but that he is overpowered by the combination of Sharon and DeLay.
Nobody can quite recall anything to match the four-day reception afforded DeLay in Israel. The former pest exterminator from Sugarland, Texas, has been derisively dubbed the "Messiah" by a Democratic political operative active in Jewish affairs for the past generation. Sharon delayed his eighth visit to Washington to confer with Bush for a private session with DeLay.
DeLay represents the unconditional support for Israel that once was limited in Congress to Jewish Democrats, who are far less influential than the born-again Christian. He is an important counterweight to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has convinced Bush to lead in pursuing the "roadmap" for the Palestinian state essential to peace. Bush sincerely accepts this, but shares with DeLay his Christian beliefs and uncompromising commitment to the Jewish state.
The president, according to close associates, also is drawn to "Ariel," as he calls him. The rough-hewn style of the 75-year-old former general may offend some fellow statesmen, but Bush admires and likes him. In one-on-one sessions, the president finds it difficult to confront the prime minister.
Sharon's confidence in his relationship with both Bush and DeLay may convince him it is no longer necessary to continue the visits to Capitol Hill common to his previous stays in Washington. For the first time as prime minister, Sharon did not schedule a session with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (where he could expect vigorous examination, from both sides of the aisle, about the wall).
Recent sessions with other players in the Mideast drama led the senators to regret that they could not question Sharon. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, in meeting with the Foreign Relations Committee, put the wall on the top of his worries -- calling it a barrier to any meaningful peace.
The committee's encounter with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was not reassuring. Asked about the wall, Shalom told the senators it would not come down until the Palestinian Authority completely suppresses Hamas, Hezbollah and all other terrorist groups. That mandates what Abbas considers a bloody Palestinian civil war, which would be the antithesis of peace.
Last Tuesday's meeting in the White House duplicated past dialogues between Bush and Sharon -- the president backing away from confrontation after spending time with the old Israeli warrior. Four days earlier while meeting with Abbas, Bush had promised to push Sharon about the wall. In their joint press conference in the Rose Garden, however, Sharon defied U.S. opposition to the wall, and Bush supported the prime minister's position by expressing the hope the barrier would become "irrelevant."
Speaking the next day at a Knesset reception hall, DeLay delivered an unequivocal endorsement of Israeli policy with assurances that Bush is no even-handed mediator. DeLay was condescending toward Abbas, asserting he "may be" the leader to get rid of Palestinian terrorists, adding, "peace is worth giving him a chance." Palestinian hard-liners seized on DeLay's comments, with longtime Yasser Arafat lieutenant Saeb Erekat calling them "despicable and satanic." It was not a good week for peace in the Middle East.