The summit – Sharon‘s tenth visit to the United States since Bush assumed office in January 2001 – fell significantly short of Israeli expectations.
While Bush reaffirmed his support for the Gaza withdrawal, praising Sharon’s “strong visionary leadership”, the US president also issued an unusually stern warning that Israel must respect the terms of the Middle East peace road map and not follow through on controversial plans to expand settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.
Bush’s warnings underlined some of the divisions between the two close allies over the peace process.
However, Bush’s comments about settlement expansion – mentioned three times at a joint press conference – were brushed off by the Israeli delegation, who were at pains to emphasise the successful nature of the trip which saw Sharon paying his first-ever visit to the US president’s private ranch in Texas.
Putting a positive spin on the talks, Israeli officials, including Sharon himself, brusquely dismissed talk of a crisis or even a disagreement over Israel’s long-standing settlement policy.
But it was hard to avoid the impression that the trip was overshadowed by the very public presidential rebuke.
“Bush last year signalled to Israel that major settlements could stay but warned against expanding them. On Monday, Bush did the right thing by strongly reiterating the policy in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It was a message Sharon did not want to hear,” said an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
“The impasse demonstrated that Bush and Sharon, despite a close alliance over the past four years, offer widely different interpretations of what the US-supported peace plan means for settlements”
Los Angeles Times
“The impasse demonstrated that Bush and Sharon, despite a close alliance over the past four years, offer widely different interpretations of what the US-supported peace plan means for settlements,” the paper said.
Despite Israel’s insistence that the summit was a huge success, it was far from clear what Sharon’s visit had actually achieved.
One area which may yet bear fruit for Israel is the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At the summit, Sharon reportedly showed Bush satellite photos of Iranian nuclear sites and warned that Tehran was approaching a “point of no return” in learning how to make an atomic bomb, The New York Times reported.
Urging Washington to keep up the pressure on Iran, Sharon pressed for the issue to be put before the UN Security Council – a move which could yet see sanctions imposed on Tehran.