Excerpted from Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (on sale now) by Elliott Abrams.
After Arafat reasserted his absolute domination of Palestinian politics in late summer 2003, we knew that negotiations between the two parties, Israel and the PLO, were off. President Bush had said there would be no Palestinian while Arafat ruled, employing terrorism vast corruption, and making democracy impossible. Rice began to think about ways to move ahead.
We need something to break in the region, Rice said to Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weissglas; we need to shake up the dynamics. What might it be? Anything possible between Israel and Syria? Knowing that neither he nor Sharon would visit the U.S. soon, Weissglas suggested that Rice send me to see Sharon in Rome, where he would shortly be on a state visit, and we could talk it through. Rice readily agreed. Very few officials knew of the trip in either the Israeli or U.S. government—or the Italian government, for that matter. I made myself a hotel reservation on Expedia, landed on the morning of November 18 and went to my own hotel for a rest and a shower. In the afternoon I walked over to Sharon’s hotel, the Cavalieri Hilton, and one of his closest aides met me in the parking lot and escorted me through Italian and Israeli security and up to Sharon’s suite. The purpose of the trip was to discover Sharon’s plans for dealing with Syria and with the Palestinians. He had made great progress, with full American support, in crushing the intifada. Now what?
As soon as Sharon appeared, he and I and Weissglas sat down in the dining room of Sharon’s suite. I anticipated getting a terrific Italian meal, presumably specially catered for him by the best restaurant on the premises. Instead a Sharon staffer brought us a platter covered by slabs of meat. Sharon immediately dug in, pulling over to his side of the table a large piece of pink meat and cutting a huge slice. It sure looked like ham to me, a food I did not eat and assumed Sharon could not, either. So I asked him: “What meat, exactly, is that?” As he brandished a large fork full, he replied, “Elliott, sometimes it is better not to ask.”
Sharon was, as usual, honest-and blunt. With Syria, there would be no negotiation—no matter what the Americans wanted. To start discussing the border with those murderers, he said—we did it before. It failed. We have to solve the Palestinian problem. We should not turn to another front and leave the Palestinian effort behind. A nation has only a certain ability to face problems. We should stick to the Palestinian issue…Israel cannot take another heavy burden on its shoulders. We cannot take it. It would be a major mistake…Don’t drag Israel now into a new internal struggle. We don’t trust the Palestinians and we are not sure something will happen. But we have to try and do that, he concluded.
I knew many of Israel’s generals favored a negotiation with Syria, but they were not in charge. Sharon was, and the message I was to carry back to President Bush was clear. Starting some negotiation with Syria would shock Israel, he said, and we have had enough shocks; we don’t need it now.
As to the Palestinians, Sharon had a different view. For the first time, he unveiled his new thinking. We might say that if it is quiet for a time we will dismantle some settlements in Gaza, Sharon told me. But this would not be the product of a negotiation with the Palestinians, he made clear. I will take these new steps as unilateral steps, he said; I don’t want to be in their hands, because they may not perform, or there may be acts of terror. Three months later, Sharon finally went public, suggesting he might order evacuation of some settlements in Gaza. His own Likud Party voted down the proposal in May 2004, the first step in a series that ultimately led Sharon to split Likud and create the new Kadima Party. But this conversation in Rome was the first inkling the United States Government had of what later came to be called “disengagement.” As Sharon reported to the Knesset later, in April 2004, “contacts between us and the U.S. Bush Administration on this ossue…commenced during my visit to Rome, when I communicated to a White House representative my intention to initiate the Disengagement Plan.” We had once asked Weissglas, during a meeting in Rice’s office, whether a withdrawal from Gaza was possible, and he had quickly said no. Sharon had had a significant change of mind.