which occupier is next?

Some have speculated Syria. Others, Cuba. But perhaps there is a much more obvious target?

President George Bush was determined. "You must do something to help Abu Mazen succeed as the Palestinian prime minister," he told the Israeli foreign minister last week.

Silvan Shalom tried to explain that the appointment of Abu Mazen was a positive step but Israel would examine his moves, etc. Bush cut him off. "It is important to me that you help him so he succeeds."

At a meeting of the Middle East "managers" at the top of the U.S. administration, the president turned to William Burns, the State Department official who carries the Middle East portfolio, and said, "Bring me Abu Mazen." Burns responded that the timing was problematic. An American embrace right now could hurt the rising leader. "I want him in Washington," the president said.

Israelis home from Washington are reporting on the rumors in the city: The president wants "something big" in the Middle East after his victory in Iraq. The minute Abu Mazen sits down in the prime minister's chair, the administration will be a lot less tolerant of Israeli use of force, from the separation fence and expansion of settlements to harm done to Palestinians. The administration expects gestures like prisoner releases, evacuation of outposts and increased financial transfers from Israel to the Palestinians.

Another (somewhat older) article in Ha'aretz also warns:

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tactic is to buy time. He assumes that the road map goes into effect when terror stops, and that incitement will allow him to drag out Stages II and III indefinitely. But that's not how America sees it. Slashing aid from $4 billion (which we treated as if it were already in our pocket) to $1 billion, is the U.S. administration's way of saying "don't mess with us."

Sharon built up a relationship of personal trust with President Bush and committed himself to painful concessions. Woe to us if he is caught telling untruths about the settlements. Remember when Arafat sent a letter to Bush swearing that he had no connection to the Karine A arms ship and it turned out to be a big fat lie? That was the beginning and end of Arafat's relations with the Bush administration.

The goal of the road map is to end Israel's occupation and establish a Palestinian state in two stages by 2005. The weak spot in our relationship with Bush is the settlement issue and the danger that Sharon and his promises will be written off as unreliable.

Bush himself has hinted at a post-Iraq regional strategy that necessarily does include resolution of the IP conflict. And Ariel Sharon is fully aware of this, and has already begun jockeying. It's a curious twist indeed however that Saudi-friend Bush might indeed adopt a hard-line towards Israel... and the poor neoconservatives, who see Saudi Arabia as enemy number one and Israel's security as objective number one, may well find their own star waning. Interesting times.

Ha'aretz has been ESSENTIAL reading these past few months.

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