Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has a vision, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to make sure the U.S. administration doesn’t buy it, although some State Department officials seem ready to sign on the dotted line.
That may be the diplomatic script as both leaders make their case to President George W. Bush in the next few days against a backdrop of continuing suicide bombings and mounting pressure on Washington from the European and Arab states.
Mubarak, who arrived on Wednesday and was scheduled to spend the weekend at Camp David, wants a more active, aggressive U.S. role that would lead to at least an interim Palestinian state by next year.
“His theme when he’s in Washington will be this: ‘Let’s get moving,’ ” said Stephen P. Cohen, a
consultant for the Israel Policy Forum, who met with Mubarak this week. “There are a lot of theoretical ideas, lots of vision statements out there, but now it’s time to take practical steps.”
Although Bush has made no decisions, there is substantial support for Mubarak’s outline at the State Department.
The Israeli leader is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday to lobby for a slower, more incremental approach. Wednesday’s bombing near Afula in northern Israel, one of the worst in the 20-month-old wave of terror attacks, “will strengthen his argument that Arafat’s ‘reforms’ are just window dressing, and that now is not the time to be rewarding him with a new American initiative,” said a senior analyst with a pro-Israel group.
Contrary to reports that Sharon was “summoned,” Israeli sources say his government lobbied hard for the meeting in response to growing indications that the administration is considering new initiatives in the region.
“There was an understanding that the American administration is trying to make decisions about how best to move forward,” said one Israeli official. “They are getting input from Mubarak, from Crown Prince Abdullah, from the Europeans; we felt it was very important for us to express our ideas and concerns at the very highest levels.”
“It’s flux time; people think now is the time to push,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. “You have a lot of people inside and outside the Bush administration pushing in an effort to win the soul of George W. Bush. Therefore, now is the time to try to influence the president.”
Despite rumors of sweeping new U.S. plans, observers here say the diplomatic double header is aimed more at helping the administration clarify a U.S. approach to the region that has gotten murky in recent weeks.
On Tuesday State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the visits are a continuation of a process of exploring policy options.
“Since April 4, when the president enunciated our view of how to proceed in the Middle East, we have had a whole series of consultations with friends on all parts of the spectrum,” he said.
“So this process is going forward of gathering the views and different ideas that people have.”
The administration wants to focus on several areas, sources here say: solidifying the nebulous proposal for this summer’s international peace conference, increasing the pressure on Yasir Arafat to “reform” his corrupt, dysfunctional Palestinian Authority and prodding Sharon to accept the idea of beginning political negotiations before a complete end to the violence.
The first to arrive — and, from the administration’s point of view, the most important — is the Egyptian president. In an extensive New York Times interview this week, Mubarak indicated he will press for quick Palestinian statehood and for a much more aggressive U.S. intervention role.
He also promised to bring Bush a detailed proposal for ending the violence and resuming political talks aimed at a permanent agreement. Some observers say the visit is more about Mubarak’s fears of being eclipsed as leader of the Arab world than about any new ideas.
“Obviously, he wants to recapture his role as the preeminent leader in the Arab world, in light of Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to the President’s ranch and his vision of the future,” said Judith Kipper, director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Saudi prince is pushing a broad peace outline that involves Israel’s return to its 1967 borders in return for recognition by the major Arab and Muslim states. Mubarak, Washington sources say, wants to help flesh out that proposal. Mideast expert Stephen P. Cohen, after meetings with the Egyptian president this week, said that Mubarak is “very committed to doing what’s necessary to make it possible to start negotiations again — and to do it in a reasonable way. He made it clear he is not coming to Washington to make demands that cannot be met at this point.”
He said Mubarak will also make proposals for a “much transformed structure” of the Palestinian Authority.
Mubarak’s visit will be a “key element” in the administration’s ongoing effort to come up with a new approach to the ongoing conflict, he said.
That perception is the major reason Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon requested yet another White House meeting. Israeli officials say the prime minister wants to head off any sweeping U.S. plan that involves timetables for a Mideast settlement or specific goals.
And Sharon wants to make sure there are no surprises in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Dore Gold, a top adviser to Sharon, said that his government is “getting reports” that a more detailed U.S. plan is under consideration. “One of the issues on the agenda is to be whether it is appropriate to have a detailed plan at this time,” he said.
Gold said that Sharon will make the case that Israel is “more determined than ever to keep Jerusalem united and its holy sites under the sovereignty of Israel,” and that Israel must retain control of all “international passages. Obviously, Israeli is approaching any discussion of the parameters of a final-status solution in light of the lessons of nearly two years of the intifada.”
Press reports after Wednesday’s bombing said Sharon will also press the case to write Arafat out of script for any new negotiations.
The administration, for its part, wants to take soundings of the Israeli leader. “They want to reassure Sharon that no matter what the U.S. does, he’ll be the first to know,” said Judith Kipper. “There will be constant consultations; they want him to know there will be no surprises.”
Kipper said it is unlikely there will be any dramatic new proposals from Washington, despite the twin summits. “I don’t think they’re there yet,” she said. “I see no signs they have plan they’re ready to put on the table. But they want to see what they have to work with; these visits are all part of that process.”
The administration will also fill Sharon in on the sputtering planning for an international peace conference sometime this summer. Sharon first floated the plan in April, but insists it should include only “moderate” Arab states, and that it must be preceded by an end to terror.
This week Syria and Lebanon, backed by France, demanded that they be included in any conference.
Sharon was scheduled to spend the weekend in New York, although Israeli sources say that could change as his government maps out a response to this week’s deadly terror attack.
He is due in Washington on Monday for meetings with Bush and other top administration officials.
On Tuesday he will hold a round of congressional meetings that were originally scheduled during his visit four weeks ago but canceled when the bombing at Rishon Le Zion forced his early return to Israel.
Sharon will reportedly use Tuesday’s meetings to reinforce strong congressional support as a counterweight to any dramatic moves by the Bush administration to speed up the pace of negotiations.