How Israel persuaded leader of the free world to see West Bank entirely their way

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon was smiling during much of his joint White House conference with President George Bush last night.

Ariel Sharon was smiling during much of his joint White House conference with President George Bush last night.

He secured most of what he came to Washington DC for, perhaps more than even he had dared to expect.

He had wanted public endorsement of the principle that the pre-1967 borders on which so many - and not only Palestinians - have long assumed would form the basis of any future settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, were not after all inviolate. And he wanted a clear public statement from the US President that there would be no right of return to Israel for the families of those who have been refugees for more than half a century.

That he got both, not implicitly but explicitly, was made all the more surprising given that President Bush, mired in the intractable chaos and bloodshed of Iraq, might have been expected to be especially sensitive about anything which would exacerbate tensions between himself and Arab leaders.

Certainly some of the more worldly officials in the Israeli government had expected that the President would indeed be so constrained that he would use opaque words where Mr Sharon would have preferred clear ones. Instead, Mr Sharon returns from Washington having secured a significant and remarkably open shift of US policy in his favour.

Perhaps he had an inkling of this on Monday night. Just before flying out, he went to a Moroccan-Jewish, end-of-Passover celebration at Ma'ale Adumim, the huge Israeli West Bank settlement close to Jerusalem - justly described by Mr Sharon himself as a "city" - and promised it that it would remain in Israeli hands "for ever and ever".

If so, his confidence was well justified. For this is precisely one of the "centres of [Israeli] population" on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 "Green Line" which Mr Bush so clearly implied would remain within Israel under any final negotiations with the Palestinians. But many sensible people on both sides of the conflict recognise that there may have to be some give and take on the pre-1967 borders - quite possibly even including Ma'ale Adumim - in any final status negotiations.

The point is rather that last night Mr Bush was talking only from an Israeli perspective - of the "take"; and that however much he may deny it, he is publicly pre-empting any such "final status" negotiations, which were last night at least, looking an even remoter prospect than they did before. Which may be one reason that Yasser Abed Rabbo, co-author of the very Geneva accords which were praised by the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, condemned last night's move as a means by which Mr Bush and Mr Sharon were doing no more than propping each other up.

No one has ever fared well in contacts with Mr Sharon by underestimating his political wiliness. But the question remains: how did he persuade the leader of the free world to see it his way? One answer may be excellent staff work. In the 100 hours or so of negotiations between his own officials, including Dov Weisglass, his chief of staff, Giora Eiland, his National Security Adviser and the principal architect of the plan to disengage from Gaza, and Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, on the one hand and State Department and National Security Agency officials on the other, the Israelis appear to have achieved a great deal.

If he was arguing that the plan was necessary for Israel's security, they asked, why did he need anything in return? The larger answer may be this: that Mr Sharon convinced Washington that rejection in a referendum of Likud members of the disengagement plan, and the political vacuum it would leave, would be as disastrous for Mr Bush as for Mr Sharon. This is doubtful. But he nevertheless managed to convince Mr Bush that winning the referendum was paramount and that he could only do that with concrete concessions which would appease the Likud right, including, he hopes, some of his own rivals.

There are sceptics within Israeli politics who doubt that Mr Sharon will go ahead with disengagement, even if he wins his referendum. That analysis looks wrong, even if last night's events suggest strongly that what he is doing is disengaging from Gaza while consolidating his grip on the West Bank.

The architect of the whole settlement programme now looks determined to disengage from the Gaza settlements - and a handful of small and remote ones in the northern West Bank. But the importance of last night's US shift is underlined by the fact that even if he were not to do so, the parameters of the argument have moved. It is that much more difficult for any future Israeli politician not to insist that the five big settlement blocks will remain intact. And, for now, that much more difficult to see how negotiations will begin again.