Bush opens new phase in his ties to Sharon


CRAWFORD, Texas - They have shared a helicopter ride over the West Bank and face-to-face meetings in Washington and Jordan.

They have praised each other in public remarks in their native capitals.

But President Bush has never taken Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his trademark pickup truck tour of his sprawling ranch here in the hills of central Texas. And by throwing open the doors of his beloved Prairie Chapel to Sharon today, Bush is marking a new phase in his close, high-stakes relationship with the Israeli leader.

For Bush, who has labored to steer clear of the details of Middle East peacemaking, a spring day on his 1,600-acre spread near Waco is an ideal way to show strong support for Sharon at a time when his early backing of the Israeli leader could be on the brink of paying dividends.

It also seems calculated to send a message that Bush feels a close connection with Israel as he signals a willingness to work with the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on a re-energized peace process. Bush has invited Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen, to meet with him in Washington this month.

Bush sees today's meeting as a chance to talk to Sharon about Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, aides say, and to urge the Israeli leader to cooperate in carrying out a peace plan known as the "road map," which is intended to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The session also has broader significance for Bush, who came into office loath to wade into the unpredictable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Achievement of a lasting peace would vindicate Bush's assertion that toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would lead to a new era of democracy in the Middle East.

Potential risks

But the meeting carries potential perils for the president, coming as Sharon is moving forward with a plan to expand a large Jewish settlement near Jerusalem. If Bush is seen as condoning the move, he risks undermining the chances for peace, analysts say.

Bush said last week that he has high hopes for the meeting, even as he reiterated the U.S. position that there should be "no expansion of the settlements."

"I'm optimistic, because I firmly believe that Ariel Sharon wants to have a peaceful partner, wants there to be a democracy in the Palestinian territories, and I believe President Abbas wants the same thing," Bush told reporters in Washington.

But pressed Friday about Sharon's most recent settlement plan, Bush stopped short of saying that he would try to talk the Israeli prime minister out of it, instead noting that the road map "has clear obligations on settlements" to which he expects Sharon to adhere.

"I will say so privately, as well," Bush said on Air Force One, as he headed for Crawford.

If Bush hopes to keep the peace process on track, some analysts say, he will have to fit in some tough talk amid the photo opportunities in Crawford.

"The question is, can the president do something to prevent what everyone now acknowledges is on the brink of happening," said Henry Siegman, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, who warned that violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is on the verge of resuming.

The 'last opportunity'

The meeting "is the very last opportunity the United States has to exercise its very special leverage in this situation ... to prevent an explosion" and could be "the last opportunity for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue for a generation or two," Siegman said.

Bush and top administration officials have been harshly critical of Sharon's settlement activity, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month should come to a "full stop."

But Bush has signaled a more moderated U.S. position, supporting the idea that Israel would be allowed to retain "existing major Israeli population centers" in any final peace agreement. Sharon, who faces bitter political opposition to his plan to withdraw from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza starting this summer, is said to believe that Bush's stance, set out in a letter he sent the prime minister last April, is consistent with Sharon's plans to expand the West Bank settlement Maale Adumim.

The Israeli government announced last month that it would add 3,500 homes there. Palestinians have responded angrily, accusing Israel of trying to cement its hold on territory that should be part of an eventual Palestinian state.

While Bush has toughened his statements against Israeli settlements since the start of his first term, analysts say it is not clear that he plans to press Sharon to heed them.

"There has been a change at the level of rhetoric since the Palestinian election that brought in Abu Mazen, but there's been no change whatsoever in the level of action," Siegman said. Bush, he said, has left "an aura of deep ambiguity about what the United States will tolerate and what it won't."

Texas diplomacy

Still, by playing host to Sharon in Crawford - the backdrop for much of Bush's diplomacy - the president has placed the Israeli prime minister in distinguished company.

Among those who have stayed at Prairie Chapel are British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a guest at the ranch, as was Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who is expected to come again this month.

Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin joined Bush in Crawford last month for a meeting on expanding trade, fostering business cooperation and improving security along North American borders.

"This president emphasizes informality," said Charles F. Dunbar, a former ambassador and diplomat in the Middle East who teaches international relations at Boston University. "World leaders with whom he feels particularly comfortable get invited to the ranch. It means that you're among the people that he regards with respect and even affection."

At the same time, Dunbar said, an informal meeting could be as useful - or even more so - than a session in the Oval Office.

"There is no reason to think that because they're off in the president's ranch that the meeting is not going to be effective," Dunbar said. Bush and Sharon "can transact a lot of business out of the public eye," saying things to each other than they might not in a larger meeting in a more official setting, Dunbar said.

The visit also will highlight a personal connection. Bush and Sharon have reputations as hawkish leaders but are also known for enjoying the ranch lifestyle. Sharon often spends time and conducts high-level meetings at his cattle ranch in Israel's northern Negev desert, known as Sycamore Ranch.

'Litmus tests'

"There's something of a magic show involved here - don't read their lips, watch their hands," said Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and peace activist.

Sharon's actions until the start of the Gaza withdrawal will say much more than any pronouncements from today's meeting about what Bush was able to accomplish at his ranch.

"There will be clear litmus tests," Seidemann said, "much more effective than the rhetoric that we hear in Texas."

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