WASHINGTON - What Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is doing to his relations with U.S. President George Bush reminds retired U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis of what defense minister Ariel Sharon did to the relations of former-U.S. president Ronald Reagan with the government of Menachem Begin. In the summer of 1982, Israel was asked to stop bombing civilian neighborhoods in Beirut. Begin informed Reagan that the attack had ceased. The report Lewis sent to Washington from the embassy in Tel Aviv closely matched the description of the destruction that EU envoy Philip Habib gave from the window of his hotel in Beirut. Lewis says that on that day Israel lost Reagan. He knows that George W. Bush came to the White House with a positive attitude toward Sharon, which had developed since Sharon escorted Bush, then-governor of Texas, during a visit to Israel.
What do the Americans want from Sharon? After all, he's only fighting against the same terrorist organizations that appear on the blacklist of the United States. Since when does a conservative Christian who likes westerns care that Jews and Arabs are killing each other? True, after Muslim zealots massacred thousands of Americans and with anthrax striking at the Capitol in Washington, a few dozen Palestinian dead affect Bush's sleep in more or less the same way that he is bothered by the death by sword and famine of tens of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis in Africa. Israeli diplomats in Washington pointed out to Jerusalem the low profile of the administration's reaction to the latest series of Israeli army liquidations of Palestinians.
To the Americans, the difference between the car of a fugitive terrorist that suddenly explodes on the street of a Palestinian town and an Israeli tank deployed next to a church in Bethlehem is like the difference between those who pee in the swimming pool and those who relieve themselves while standing on the diving board. In the few days that remain before the advent of the Muslims' holy month of Ramadan, the last thing the administration wants is for masses of Muslims to see on their television screens the difference between the aggressive reaction of the United States to Muslim violence, and its forgiving response to Jewish violence.
Sharon's disregard of the president's request came after the head of the National Security Council, Prof. Condoleezza Rice, chose to tell the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera cable television station that there is no such thing as "good terrorism and bad terrorism." The NSC adviser, who is close to the president, hinted in that interview that after the United States settles its account with Osama bin Laden, it will turn to deal with the rest of the villains in the region. It was more than obvious that she was referring to Iraq and Syria. She was also sending a signal to Israel that it would be worth its while for the first stage of the campaign to end successfully. In more discrete talks, the administration tried to explain to Sharon that failure of the present stage is liable to unleash a counter-reaction that will strengthen the fanatics and the madmen. That will have an adverse effect on the possibility of cobbling together a global coalition and shaping parameters that will ultimately also be of benefit to Israel's security and strategic situation.
For good measure, and to relieve Sharon of the anxiety he may have that as soon as things quiet down in the territories the Americans will hit him with a peace plan, Bush this week assured Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that there is no plan and there will be no coercion. Even James Baker, the secretary of state in the administration of President Bush's father and the man who dragged prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Conference, wrote this week in the Financial Times that it's obvious that the sides themselves have to want peace and that the United States cannot impose peace on them. But nothing helped. Washington is beginning to understand that September 11 and the anthrax offensive have changed nothing in Sharon's outlook or in his order of priorities. The prime minister is insisting on proving to his old friends that he is the same Arik-40 kilometers-Sharon of 20 years ago, who thumbs his nose at the world. Even if he pulls the army out of Palestinian Authority areas in the days ahead, the residue of insult and anger will not soon evaporate.
Sam Lewis warns that when American soldiers start coming home in body bags, the Americans will start to settle accounts with all those who didn't stand by them in their time of trouble. Here and there one already hears the question: With an ally like Israel, who needs enemies?
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