The Oval: Summit Talk

Prompted by reporters, the president and the prime minister left no one in any doubt about their sharp differences over Israeli plans to expand a handful of settlements in the West Bank. Speaking outside George Bush's Texas ranch after their Monday meeting, the president insisted the situation was simple. "Israel has obligations under the Roadmap," he said, standing beside Ariel Sharon. "The Roadmap clearly says no expansion of settlements." Sharon, for his part, insisted that the settlements in question were already major population blocs and would remain part of Israel under any final agreement with the Palestinians.

But while the rest of the world focused on the tension between Bush and Sharon, behind the scenes the mood among White House aides was far more upbeat. Sharon first discussed his disengagement plan--and the annexing of parts of the West Bank--with Elliott Abrams, Bush's hawkish White House adviser on the Middle East, in November 2003. At the time, the security situation in Iraq had worsened significantly and the Gaza pullout looked like a breakthrough in the region. Today, the White House is once again counting on the Gaza withdrawal as a critical step in its self-styled march of freedom across the Middle East. White House aides say they believe the pullout will proceed "smoother than anticipated" with little resistance from Israeli settlers who will be uprooted (some of them forcibly).

The real focus of U.S. attention, they say, is violence and lawlessness among Palestinians in Gaza following the settlers' departure. "The security of Gaza after the Israelis leave is of great concern to us," said one White House aide. That's why the most anticipated set of talks for President Bush are the ones being scheduled next month with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Those concerns were heightened when disaffected Palestinian militants went on the rampage in Ramallah last month, shooting at shops and restaurants as Abbas tried to consolidate his control of security forces in the West Bank.

As for Bush himself, the prospect of a self-governing Palestinian territory in Gaza has become the critical test for the peace process. Where he once insisted the critical test for the Palestinians was to close down terrorist groups, Bush now seems to take a far more practical and realistic approach. "I want to focus the world's attention on getting it right in the Gaza," Bush told reporters, "and then all of a sudden, people will start to say, gosh, well, that makes sense."

Ranch Dressing

President Bush built his Western White House near Crawford with an eye for the kind of political theater he staged with Sharon this week. But the most memorable show came with the arrival of the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, three years ago. At the time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had reached one of its worst points, with Israeli security sweeps through the West Bank in response to a wave of suicide bombings. The Saudi response was to haul a mass of TV equipment to Crawford to show Bush pictures of Palestinian civilians suffering at the hands of Israeli troops.

When Prince Abdullah goes back to the ranch on April 25, the theatrical flourishes are likely to be President Bush's. That's not just because the situation in the Middle East has improved. Bush faces intense domestic pressure--from opinion polls especially--to look like he's doing something about rising gas prices, and the Saudi meeting is the perfect chance to do just that. Bush's build-up to the Saudi meeting starts with a speech on energy issues next Wednesday, including discussion of possible price gouging, environmentally friendly vehicles, and his long-stalled energy bill.

But for all the talk, the president's closest aides readily concede there's little he can do to move gas prices. "There are just enormous geopolitical forces at work that impact gas prices," said one Bush confidant. "It's difficult for any world leader to have a substantial impact."

Keep It In The Family

The White House announced Tuesday that President Bush has nominated Craig Stapleton, a cousin by marriage and one of his biggest campaign fund-raisers, to be the next U.S. ambassador to France. Paris may be home to the awkward Jacques Chirac, but it remains one of the most hotly sought-after embassy posts in the world--and a plum reward for any president's closest supporters.

So who won one of the jewels in the diplomatic crown? Stapleton is married to Bush's second cousin, Dorothy Bush Walker, and formerly served as Bush's envoy to the Czech Republic. He resigned in early 2004 to work on the president's re-election effort. Both he and his wife have been prolific fund-raisers for Bush's campaigns, raising at least $100,000 apiece in 2000. In 2004, Stapleton surpassed his wife's fund-raising to earn the rank of "Ranger," an elite group of fund-raisers who brought in $200,000 or more.

While Stapleton is a registered Democrat, his political affiliation hasn't kept him from closely working with members of his wife's family. A former New York real-estate executive, Stapleton served on the Peace Corps' board of directors when Bush's father was president. He was also an investor with President Bush in the Texas Rangers baseball club. Bush's move would make Stapleton the top diplomat in a country that has had tense relations with the United States in recent years, most notably over the war in Iraq which France opposed.

Yet there have already been some questions about Stapleton's diplomatic skills, which suggest a less-than-peaceful posting in Paris. During his time in Prague, he publicly feuded with Czech President Vaclav Klaus over his opposition to the Iraq war. In March 2003, Czech newspapers reported that Stapleton stormed out of a meeting with Klaus about Iraq, slamming the door behind him. Stapleton, who has never denied the account, later told reporters, "The meeting ended because we were done discussing the topic that was on our agenda." Later, after Klaus wrote an op-ed accusing the U.S. of trying to force democracy on the Iraqi people, Stapleton came out swinging, telling The Prague Post, "Any time anyone questions American motives, we get offended."