Flavia Montiero Colgan | What'll it be: Peace or politics?

BY ABANDONING any pretense of objectivity and throwing his support behind Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan," George W. Bush has seriously undermined American policy goals in relation to Arab countries at a crucial time.

American soldiers are risking their lives, and often losing them, in what is now a troubled peacekeeping mission in an Arabic country: Iraq. Why fan the fires of anti-Americanism in the Arab world now by heightening the perception that the U.S. government champions Israel - and Ariel Sharon, in particular - over the aspirations of the Palestinians?

This move, at this time, puts our long-term security interest in peace, not only in Israel but in Iraq as well, at much greater risk.

Last week, in a major TV appearance with Sharon at the White House, President Bush abandoned his own road map to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In one fell swoop, he gave Sharon two major concessions in the long and tortured peace process.

First, Bush approved Sharon's desire to make certain Israeli settlements in the West Bank permanent. Then he took the Palestinian right of return to what is now Israel right off the bargaining table. This has been a major stumbling block in previous negotiations. This came without even consulting the Palestinians and contrary to the recommendations of his own State Department.

The idea that these issues may ultimately have been resolved in a similar way in negotiations between the parties just won't fly. The point of negotiations is to negotiate. These drastic policy shifts should not be done by presidential fiat.

Mr. Bush's theatrical backslapping performance with Sharon serves only to further muddy the already turgid waters of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and comes at a price the U.S. cannot afford.

More ill will toward the U.S. has been built up in the Arab world, especially Gaza, the West Bank and Iraq, the very areas from which our troubles now flow. Supporting Sharon has undermined our position without gaining the slightest concession from Israel. The ball hasn't been moved forward an inch in the quest for peace.

Pollster John Zogby recently told the Washington Post: "This is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the peace process as far as Arabs are concerned. " Zogby finds the Palestinian cause to be among the top three issues for 90 percent of the respondents in all Arab countries he has surveyed. "It's not even a political issue, it's a bloodstream issue. "

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush is often the reason that blood boils. TV viewers throughout the Arab world are seeing potent images of street fighting and occupation in Iraq, which parallel the very similar images they see from the West Bank and Gaza. Right or wrong, they associate it all with him.

Such images make it hard for moderate Arab leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or King Abdullah of Jordan, whose countries border Israel, to help us.

Their people see the U.S. as hostile to the Palestinian cause, and are convinced, given the camaraderie between Bush and Sharon in the White House, that Bush at least tacitly approved the targeted assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

So why did Bush decide not only to support Sharon's disengagement plan but to do so in the most theatrical of ways: a White House press conference?

When it comes to Bush, the suspicion always rears its head: votes.

Although the rest of the world is less than ecstatic about Sharon's plan, it is gaining support in increasingly hawkish segments of the Jewish-American community, in which Ariel Sharon is more popular than he is with his own people.

Those voters, who have always been reliable Democrats, are crucial to Bush's re-election hopes. Not only does the president curry favor with them by supporting the Sharon disengagement plan, but he effectively "checkmates" John Kerry.

Kerry could agree with Bush, alienating left-wing voters who may end up flocking to Ralph Nader, or he could criticize Bush, angering the Jewish voters he needs just as desperately.

George W. Bush and his advisers are no dummies. They might have hurt U.S. interests last week, but if they helped their own, well . . . that's what matters. *