The Oval: Bush's Palestinian Tightrope

It's hard to overstate how much the White House is betting on the next several months of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President George W. Bush's national-security officials suggest that if all goes well with Israel's withdrawal from Gaza--and if an effective and peaceful Palestinian state emerges there--the administration will find new diplomatic openings across the region, the broader Muslim world and even across Europe.

That's not entirely wishful thinking, even if it relies on two big "ifs." On Bush's recent trip to Europe, it was Palestinian politics that featured more prominently than any subject other than Russia itself. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin recounted at length his recent trip to the region, agreeing with Bush on the need to support both the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Even in Maastricht, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende mentioned the Middle East peace process ahead of the broader war on terror and the prospects for Iraq.

Those sky-high expectations will meet their first test when Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House next week in his first meeting as the Palestinian president with Bush--an opportunity that was denied to his predecessor, Yasir Arafat. How Bush handles Abbas will come under intense scrutiny across the Middle East, posing by far the trickiest challenge for the U.S. president in terms of awkward foreign leaders. Even more than his handling of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Crawford, Texas, last month, Bush faces competing pressures from both ends of the political spectrum. On one side, the White House needs to demonstrate its support for Abbas and help deliver real improvements on the ground for Palestinians--something that failed to happen when Abbas was prime minister in 2003. On the other side, the White House needs to reiterate its basic demand for Abbas to deliver on security for the Israelis.

In case he needs any advice, Bush's favorite writer on the region offered his own prescription in Washington this week. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, authored "The Case for Democracy" (a book described by one of the president's confidants as Bush's manifesto) and quit as an Israeli minister in opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. Sharansky's stated reason for quitting was the lack of linkage between Palestinian democracy and the pullout from the settlements. His demands from Abbas are clear. "It's difficult to stop terror," Sharansky told reporters on Wednesday, "but [it's not difficult] to stop incitement in schools. The new [Palestinian school] books are worse than the old books. But the real question is whether we should demand from Mahmoud Abbas as a precondition [to withdrawal] that he will start--I emphasize not end--but start to dismantle the networks of terror. He's declared already he won't do it, but he will have a ceasefire. It's very unfortunate."

The road to Rome?

Is another big GOP donor on his way to a plum ambassadorship? The Catholic News Agency reports that Oklahoma businessman Francis Rooney has been tapped to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. The appointment is the buzz in Oklahoma political circles, even though the White House has refused to confirm the report. A spokeswoman for Rooney also had no comment.

Rooney is the chairman of Rooney Holdings, a private investment firm based in Tulsa. As The Oval reported in January, Rooney emerged from nowhere to become a major contributor to the Republican Party in 2004. Rooney gave just $11,000 in campaign contributions in 2002, but upped his political checks to more than $500,000 during the last election. Rooney was named as a Bush "Ranger," having raised at least $200,000 for the president's re-election. He was also designated a "Super Ranger" for having raised another $300,000 for the Republican National Committee.

Last September, Rooney was among a five-member delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the inauguration of Panamanian President Martin Torrijos. Two days after the trip, Rooney Holdings contributed $100,000 to Progress for America, a Republican 527 group that is now promoting the president's Social Security proposals. But that wasn't the limit to Rooney's generosity. In January, Rooney Holdings gave $250,000--the maximum contribution allowed--to the Bush-Cheney Inaugural Committee. In March, Rooney himself gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee.

What's Rooney's business in Washington? According to records compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, one of Rooney's companies, Manhattan Construction, was awarded more than $100 million in federal contracts in 2003--up from $26 million in 2002. The company is also building a portion of the new U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.

The New Kremlinology

National-security officials inside the White House have been fretting over a critical question on one of their most difficult foreign-policy challenges: what is China's position on North Korea's nukes? The latest challenge for Bush's aides--beyond the most basic one of figuring out the size and scope of Pyongyang's nuclear program--is to read the tea leaves in Beijing. In particular, the White House was scratching its collective head over unusually public criticism from Chinese officials last week.

China has been, and remains, the linchpin in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. Speaking to reporters in the East Room inside the White House last month, President Bush said that North Korea's threats to proceed with its nuclear program "certainly caught the attention of the Chinese because they had laid out a policy that was contradicted by Kim Jong Il." For good measure, he also threw in another condemnation of the North Korean leader as "a dangerous person ... who starves his people."

The response from Beijing has been distinctly cool. The senior Chinese official dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, Yang Xiyu, told The New York Times that the failure of the talks so far resulted from "the lack of cooperation from the U.S. side." He also suggested the U.S. drop its personal attacks on the North Korean leader and start informal, direct talks with the North Koreans. Those comments came just a week after Bush tried to convince Chinese President Hu Jintao to press North Korea to return to the talks.

Inside the White House, the apparent loss of Chinese support mystified Bush's aides. On the one hand, they could point hopefully to Yang's statement that China made it "very, very clear" there would be serious consequences if North Korea conducted a nuclear test. On the other hand, the comments made it sound like the Chinese were trying to prepare for just such a prospect. "If the North Koreans test, they are trying to blame the U.S.," said one senior administration official. The only clear conclusion by Bush's aides: "It was very interesting that he was on the record," said the official, speaking (of course) anonymously.