During his gleeful 2000 run at the Republican presidential nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona had a great, mordant line about adversity. "It's always darkest," McCain would say, with a Borsht-belt pause, "right before it goes pitch black." These days, a lot of Israelis can empathize with that one. One of Israel's few bright spots, however, seems to be U.S.-Israel relations. When Ariel Sharon took office, Bush administration officials certainly had no inkling that the Israeli leader most reviled in the Arab world would have visited the White House four times before the 2002 midterm elections.
What changed? Yasser Arafat did - or, rather, he failed to change. Sharon has done at best an indifferent job of honoring the old political maxim of not interfering when one's adversary is energetically self-immolating. But Arafat has still managed to alienate Washington with striking thoroughness - most glaringly, with his reflexive mendacity when caught with the Karine A arms ship. If Bush and Sharon are an odd couple, they've been brought together not by destiny but by an unlikely matchmaker - indeed, by someone who'd be a suitor himself if he had any sense.
So Sharon's circle shouldn't get too smug. The Bush administration is not buying a fair bit of what Sharon is selling. On Sharon's February visit, he urged the White House to cut ties with Arafat, in vain. Sharon did get U.S. officials to agree that Arafat was no fit partner for a grand deal - but he got nowhere in convincing them that Arafat should be ignored. Similarly, when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah floated the idea of swapping Arab states' recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, Sharon's aides stammered that Abdullah's trial balloon was a PR ploy to distract U.S. attention from the fact that three-quarters of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. The administration - while well aware of that statistic - still perked up at the risk-averse Saudis finally adding something constructive to the peace process.
Nor has Sharon done much to change some underlying strains within the administration. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld more or less shares Vice President Dick Cheney's dim view of Arafat, but neither the State Department nor the CIA trust Sharon to keep the Israeli-Palestinian fray sufficiently contained to let the U.S. get on with the serious business of tackling Al-Qa'eda and Iraq. Both Bush and his chief foreign policy interpreter, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, are thought to still largely defer to Secretary of State Colin Powell on diplomatic questions.
That leaves Sharon with, at best, a somewhat split administration that dismisses his central contention: that Israel can and should produce an alternative, pragmatic Palestinian leadership. For the White House, all roads still lead to Arafat, even if that means that for now, all roads lead nowhere.
So Sharon shouldn't confuse the current stall with a sea change in American thinking on the conflict. Nor should the ordinary Israelis who thought that, after September 11, America would finally "get it" on terrorism. To be sure, Americans now have a different gut feel for the gestalt of being a victim. But that doesn't change the fact that Sharon has no way out, or the fact that Israel has made some serious mistakes in handling its own terror problem. After all, U.S. counterterrorism experts don't view settlements as any shrewder today than they did on September 10. On Arafat, Bush and Sharon are on the same page; on human rights, closures and partition, they're in different books.
In his lack of an endgame, Sharon reflects not only the pattern shown in his Lebanon-era history of trying to quash Palestinian nationalism, but also his party's inability to formulate an alternative to Oslo. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Likud had a strategy, of sorts: build enough settlements to foreclose territorial compromise and sooner or later the Palestinians would assent to living disenfranchised under Israeli rule. But in the 1990s, when Labor put a serious partition plan - however flawed in design and execution - on the table, the Likud had nothing to offer but the vitriol of Binyamin Netanyahu's tenure as opposition leader. Indeed, in opposition, the Likud was vicious in style precisely because it was vacuous on substance.
And the Likud in power? It prescribes not partition but attrition. Sharon has held back the far right of his party, which wants to destroy the PA. But that is not enough to end Israel's terrorism nightmare. Nor will it take the threat of long-term discord out of Israel's relationship with an America whose willingness to shrug at Israeli-Palestinian mayhem is limited by its interest in uprooting Al-Qa'eda, tackling Iraq, and reforming Arab politics.
For now, the point is not just that Sharon's policy is all stick and no carrot - all reprisal and no prospect of a negotiated partition that even his imagined Palestinian leadership could buy. The point is that one uses carrots and sticks to move someone along, and Sharon doesn't know where he wants the Palestinians to go. He seems to just hope that if he hits back long enough, they'll quiet down.
The odds against that happening were, in fact, pungently expressed by a conservative icon. "The use of force alone is but temporary," wrote Edmund Burke in 1775. "It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered." The passage comes from, aptly enough, Burke's "On Conciliation with America."
Warren Bass is director of the Special Projects/Terrorism Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council and the author of a forthcoming book on the Kennedy administration's Middle East policies.