An American, a Russian and an Israeli had occasion to be in Spain. This happened in February in Seville at the conference of NATO defense ministers. United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates was one of the hosts, while Russian Defense Minister Segey Ivanov and Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz were guests.

Peretz told his hosts that he had suffered injuries when he was serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (sparing them details of the accident). Ivanov was the most impressive of them all: sharp, fluent and displaying the qualifications that have made him one of the two leading candidates to succeed Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gates, who will arrive in Israel tomorrow for a short visit, was limp and gray, quite the opposite of Ivanov. He did not radiate the power of someone who represents the defense establishment in the strongest country in the world.

In the mid-1980s, Gates was the head of the CIA intelligence administration and deputy to the CIA director, William Casey. In his professional capacity, Gates often met with people from the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence in Washington and Tel Aviv. They did not like him much. On one of his visits here, Yoram Hessel of the Tevel division for foreign relations at the Mossad accompanied him on a flight to the Golan Heights. Gates looked out over Syria and advised Israel not to leave the Golan. Now at the diplomatic level, he will take care not to repeat this.

Gates' visit to Israel reflects a decision not to boycott it: He must not skip Israel on his visit to the region, though he is known to be cooler toward it than his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld. There are no fateful issues that Gates is authorized to conclude with Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (whom he asked to meet, perhaps because of the rumor that she is getting closer to becoming prime minister) and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Dealing with Iran is the president's jurisdiction. In Iraq, the Pentagon has refrained from accepting overt Israeli help. Gaza, which the administration is making efforts to prevent from bursting into flames, belongs to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, even in the channel of Security Coordinator Keith Dayton. So what's left? Not a lot, mainly just the delicate issue of the sale of arms to other countries - an issue wrapped in hypocrisy on both sides.

As always, Israel wants both to limit the supply of American armaments to countries that endanger it and to have the freedom to sell Israeli weapons to countries that directly endanger the United States - and indirectly, Israel too. Israel, which is bitter about the American objection to selling arms to China, in effect is coming to terms with the transfer of Chinese arms to Iran, and from there to Hezbollah.

In this deadly game, participation is open to all. Ivanov was asked in Seville why Russia is letting its anti-tank weaponry fall into Hezbollah's hands. The question did not embarrass him. "We discussed this with Olmert in Moscow," he said, "and it is an open secret that not a single Russian anti-tank device that found its way to Hezbollah was provided to Hezbollah by Russia. Israeli and American arms have also found their way to Hezbollah. No export inspection regime is perfect. Every bullet that is exported from Russia has an end-user's certificate." In other words, if the Syrians are betraying trust and violating the conditions of the certificate, this is not Russia's responsibility.

Israel has nothing to give to Russia, even if the latter has signaled, despite diplomatic and economic considerations, a willingness for certain limitations on supplying weapons to Arabs. Israel does, however, have expectations of Washington, that it will not supply Saudi Arabia with the most accurate weaponry, such as JDAMS (satellite- or laser-guided smart bombs). In effect a smart alternative to a regular bomb. This weapon is indeed liable to be directed against Israel should the royal house fall, but in the context of the Western-Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran it does have a regional contribution. This is a known contradiction, and the Israeli way of dealing with it is to quarrel with its American friends.

The Defense Ministry, in its relations with the Pentagon, has recovered with great difficulty from two successive affairs of selling arms to China. On the last visit of an American defense secretary to Israel, seven years ago, secretary William Cohen was insulted by the matter to the point of hostility toward Israel because of the arrogant attitude of the prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak. This was neither personal nor national: Barak had also insulted the Chinese. Despite the friction at the moment over the issue of selling weapons to the Gulf states, when compared with Cohen's visit in April 2000, Gates' visit can only be a success.