Never since the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty, which was signed a week before Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, has the world of international diplomacy seen such a mirage: Yesterday's rivals, tomorrow's enemies, are forging a momental alliance, designed to suit their own interests. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat an honored guest in Washington? Great Britain wooing the Iran of the Islamic Revolution? Lord Palmerston would no doubt have been proud of his distant descendant, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Among the world's powers, priority is attached to vested interests, not allies.

In speaking of a "crusade" against global terrorism, President George W. Bush supplied Osama bin Laden with a slogan to mobilize Muslims, who currently enjoy the double standard of the West, which, in a display of Christian understanding, refrains from "overreacting" to the use of the term "jihad." If the Americans want to sell their new Crusader self-propelled howitzer to the Arabs, they had better change its name.

Bush was talking to Americans, some of whom might recollect when the term was used previously: One of their former presidents, retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower, when serving as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, inspired Allied troops about to invade Normandy by applying the word "crusade" to describe the campaign they were participating in. He would later entitle his war memoirs "Crusade in Europe."

What happened during that world war? There was a pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that included a division of Poland as the spoils of war and which preceded Hitler's turning against Stalin. But there was also a prolonged American effort to seize control of bases where troops could ready themselves for invading Italy, Germany and Japan. To achieve that goal, the Americans pushed through North Africa, operating from bases in the United Kingdom and capturing island after island in the Pacific Ocean. The current counterpart to those activities is what America is doing today in order to obtain take-off, landing and free passage rights along the Kabul flight path, namely, in the states surrounding Afghanistan - from Pakistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and on to Iran.

In the tradition of world powers - and not just in the tradition of America, the world's only superpower (Stalin, it may be recalled, joined in the war against Japan at the very last moment, simply in order to share in the spoils of victory) - you simply turn the page and start a new chapter. The shrill and deadly noise of German V-2 rockets was still in the air over London, when Dr. Werner von Braun and his colleagues were transferred to the American side so that they could develop American missiles for deployment against the Soviets, the allies of the previous war and the enemies in the Cold War.

The Americans had learned well the political legacy left them by their first president, George Washington, who warned his country of the danger of entangling alliances. In his farewell address to the American nation (published in The Independent Chronicle on September 26, 1796), he declared: "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world ... Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." Americans are prepared to forge alliances with foreign nations, but only for specific causes and only on a limited basis.

One brilliant disciple of this school of thought was Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who perhaps adopted this approach as he watched the Turks disappear from the Holy Land, the arrival of the British there, and the Americans appearing on the horizon. He realized that Israel needed the support of a world power but he also understood that this support could be withdrawn at any moment.

The issue is not "perfidious Albion" or "treacherous France," betraying her lover, the Israeli military officer; the name of the game is the complex business of international relations where a myriad of vested interests are at work. When the circumstances changed, for example, everyone - the Iranians, the Americans and the Israelis - dumped the Kurds. This is the fate of such entities as the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and, as far as Washington is concerned, the whole world, if it does not have a Jewish lobby, is a collection of SLAs.

Ben-Gurion's decision to receive the assistance of the heirs of the murderers of a sixth of the Jewish people, that is, the assistance of the leaders of the "other Germany," for the purpose of helping Israel in its war of survival, was far more significant than is Bush's willingness to move to the shoulder of the road (the change in direction cannot yet be termed a U-turn) as he sets off on an unexpected trek into bin Laden-land. Does Bush now see the "other Iran," the "other Syria," the "other Palestine"? Of course not. The Americans who have lost every shred of patience as far as bin Laden is concerned see Arafat in terms of Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas in the movie "The Dirty Dozen" - two hardened criminals who are released from prison in order to participate in a combat mission, two "bad guys" serving on the side of Good.

It is all a matter of priorities, and urgent issues simply push aside important questions. Just last spring, the Central Intelligence Agency regarded the entry of India and Pakistan into the world's nuclear club as a matter of utmost concern; however, in wake of the shock generated by the recent terror attack on New York and Washington - a horribly, ghastly act to be sure, but something that is still less deadly than a nuclear war - Bush has applied the brakes to his struggle against nuclear proliferation.

There are various ways to make a profit from an asset. Bush is not selling Israel; he is just renting Israel out, for the period of this crusade, or until the U.S. Congress forces him to cancel the rental agreement.