Ayatollahs at the door, White House in denial

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Attention Republicans: You may think the results of the Democratic primaries indicate that Americans aren't interested in foreign policy. All they care about are domestic issues, such as health care and taxes, and that's what the president should focus on.



But be careful. You could wake up in November and find that while President Bush focused on the home front, his foreign policy created the "Islamic Republic of Iraq" and the "Islamic Republic of Palestine." Imagine defending those on the campaign trail?

Have I got your attention? As they say in the phone commercial, "Can you hear me now?"


I hope we can avoid this worst-case scenario. But it's a real possibility, given the Bush team's failure so far to create a political process that can forge, empower and legitimize a moderate political center in Iraq or in Palestine - a center that can counter the rising power of Hamas and Hezbollah among Palestinians and that of the Shiite clergy in Iraq.

Let's start with the Palestinians. Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, dropped a bombshell this week when he said he was laying plans to withdraw most Israeli settlements in Gaza and to move others in the West Bank. It's not surprising that this potential breakthrough move came from Mr. Sharon, since he has the two other main players in the Arab-Israeli drama under house arrest.

That is, Mr. Sharon has the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, under house arrest in his office in Ramallah, and he's had George Bush under house arrest in the Oval Office. Mr. Sharon has Mr. Arafat surrounded by tanks, and Mr. Bush surrounded by Jewish and Christian pro-Israel lobbyists, by a vice president, Dick Cheney, who's ready to do whatever Mr. Sharon dictates, and by political handlers telling the president not to put any pressure on Israel in an election year - all conspiring to make sure the president does nothing.

Since Mr. Sharon is the only moving object, and because he has suddenly found himself under pressure to move - both to change the subject from the corruption scandal closing in on him and his family and to satisfy an Israeli electorate fed up with the bloody status quo - we may have a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. This is apparently part of a broader Sharon plan to unilaterally create an interim Palestinian state in about 50 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, and leave Israel with the rest.

While Mr. Sharon's decision is in the right direction, it's not all so simple. Why? Because in the past two years, Mr. Sharon has crushed Mr. Arafat's corrupt Palestinian Authority, but failed to lift a finger to empower more responsible Palestinians - such as Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan. This has created a power vacuum in Gaza and the West Bank, filled by Hamas, the Islamist militant group. And last week, Mr. Sharon turned over 400 Palestinian prisoners to the Islamist Lebanese militia Hezbollah in a prisoner swap, something he was never ready to do with moderate Palestinian leaders.

The message he sent is: Use violence, as Hamas and Hezbollah do, and you get results from Israel. Adopt moderation, and you get nothing.

If Mr. Sharon just pulls out of Gaza and half of the West Bank soon, he and the Bush team that's in his pocket will reap what he's sown: a Hamas takeover in these areas, or civil war.

Martin Indyk, a top Middle East adviser for President Bill Clinton, says the Bush team had better be ready with some ideas of its own when Mr. Sharon shows up at the White House to present his plans. Mr. Indyk argues that the United States and its NATO allies need to fill the vacuum being created by Mr. Sharon's move with their own "trusteeship" plan for building a decent, moderate political center in Gaza and the West Bank.


"When America or Israel names its enemies without strengthening its friends, it only ends up crowning its enemies as the popular leaders of their people," remarked the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen.

In Afghanistan, post-Taliban, the Bush team has started to build a moderate alternative in Hamid Karzai. In Palestine, though, it never really tried to do that, so it could end up with Hamas calling the shots. In Iraq, the Bush team is trying hard to build a moderate center. But given its early missteps, its crazy decision to disband the Iraqi army, its lack of a workable plan for a political transition and its July 1 deadline for turning over sovereignty in Baghdad to Iraqis - success is by no means assured. So we could end up there, too, with ayatollahs calling the shots or civil war.

Can you hear me now?

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

For the record

CorrectionMy Feb. 6 column erred in saying Ariel Sharon had released no Palestinian prisoners to Mahmoud Abbas. He did. It was just too limited a release to have any impact.