Backchannel: Bush, Sharon and the Uses of Unilateralism

While the United States and Israel have often had a strong relationship, President George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were never personally close. So what accounted for the particular tie that developed between these two Administrations? One factor was the backchannel communication mechanism that Prime Minister Sharon implemented early in his tenure between his administration and the White House.

Nahum Barnea, leading Political Columnist with Yediot Ahronot and former Ynon Kreiz Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, conducted in-depth interviews with members of the Sharon and Bush Administrations. With additional research conducted by Ariel Kastner, a Senior Research Assistant at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the two authored a monograph that details the backchannel mechanism established by Sharon. Barnea and Kastner explore Sharon’s motivations for establishing this line of communication with the White House, and contend that it resulted from the Israeli Prime Minister’s fear of having the United States pressure Israel to a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

For Sharon, the backchannel, and later Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, served to prevent the Oslo paradigm of negotiations from reemerging. But Barnea and Kastner argue that Sharon’s use of the backchannel to focus on the Palestinian issue represented a missed opportunity for Israel. While Sharon used his close relationship with the White House to marginalize Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat or rework the contents of the Roadmap, he failed to use the relationship to confront true emerging threats to Israel.