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No U.S. official was more jolted by the new reality than Dick Cheney, dispatched by Bush on an 11-country road show last week through the Arab world to promote the Administration's plans to force a showdown with Iraq. The Vice President is known as a first-class listener, able to convey that others are being taken seriously instead of being gamed. He has never needed those skills more. From London to Amman to Cairo, Cheney was drummed with the same angry refrain: the U.S. must intervene in the conflict now, demand that Ariel Sharon pull all his troops out of Palestinian-held land and forcibly drag the two sides into something resembling a cease-fire. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who receives $2.8 billion in U.S. aid a year, presented Cheney with a litany of alleged Israeli abuses against Palestinian civilians. "This is topping our agenda because it is the core of all the turmoil," says an Egyptian official. And until it's resolved, Cheney's Arab hosts informed him, the U.S. won't get their help against Iraq. Senior Administration officials worked hard to contain their dismay as the Israeli-Palestinian issue trampled the Vice President's agenda. At a joint press conference in Yemen with Cheney and President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni leader lambasted Israel and opposed U.S. action against Iraq. But when a U.S. interpreter briefed reporters on Saleh's remarks, he omitted the harsh details. U.S. officials blamed Sharon for inciting the Arabs just as Cheney was trying to woo them. "Let's just say," a senior official said, "that he did not coordinate his actions with us."
The Administration's desire to keep the Cheney trip on track was partly responsible for last week's diplomatic offensive, which featured the strongest criticisms of Israel by any U.S. Administration in more than a decade. By the weekend Cheney aides were scrambling to arrange a meeting between the Vice President and Palestinian officials. An Administration official told TIME that Bush decided to send special envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region partly because "there was a danger that the violence could hijack the Cheney trip. We thought it was useful to show we were dealing with all these issues." After privately chiding Sharon for his campaign against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. last week openly denounced his incursion into Ramallah. "The Israelis crossed a line," says a senior Administration official. Secretary of State Colin Powell threatened to cancel Zinni's mission if Sharon did not pull back from all the territories occupied in recent weeks. The President chastised Sharon during a press conference Wednesday, saying the Israeli offensive was "not helpful" to the still moribund peace process.
To Israeli hard-liners, Sharon's moves last week were necessary responses to a Palestinian terrorist threat that has grown in scope and audacity--and were no more ruthless than Washington's war against al-Qaeda. Israeli leaders wonder how Washington expects them to do business with Arafat, who only two years ago rejected a Clinton-brokered deal that would have given Palestinians 90% of the occupied territories, and instead launched the latest intifadeh. Both Arabs and Israelis suspected Bush of expediency: the President didn't pay much attention to their war until it impinged on his war.