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The United States is a great friend of Israel. But we must always remember that this dear friend of ours pats us on the head with one hand and holds a club in the other. Friendship in America's eyes does not mean that people can do whatever they like and drive America batty.

Israeli leaders have always been careful to stay on the side giving out the pats. Every once in a while, some leader would blow his top and say something. Like Menachem Begin, who called in U.S. ambassador Lewis and snapped that "we are not America's vassals."

In the days of the interim agreements in the 1970s, not complying with an American demand led to what is now remembered as a "reassessment of the relations between the two countries," followed by a freeze on arms shipments to Israel. In Shamir's day, loan guarantees to assist immigrant absorption were withheld.

Israel also misread American opposition to the sale of Phalcon jets to China. "You don't have to take American objections so seriously," said one of our ministers. But the hand on the club twitched, and we canceled the deal.

From the day he came to power, Sharon has tried to coordinate matters with the U.S. administration. He has kept the secretary of state informed of every move - sometimes beforehand and sometimes afterward, as Begin liked to say. He has correctly read the Bush family map and its long score with Arafat, as well as Bush's reluctance to mediate the conflict lest he suffer the same fate as Clinton. Bush has refused to receive Arafat or meet with him. The U.S. Congress, boasting a conservative, Republican majority that supports Israel, has always been ready to impose sanctions on Arafat.

But Sharon made a mistake in thinking of himself as a partner in Bush's war on terror following the September 11 attacks. Something along the lines of "you and me, we'll fix the world." You take care of the Taliban and Iraq, and we'll deal with Arafat - "our bin Laden." Sharon began to toy with the idea of bumping off Arafat and toppling the Palestinian Authority.

Full of himself as an army general with a specialty in fighting terror, it never sunk in that he and Bush cannot be equal partners in this war. First of all, because most countries regard Palestinian terror as a legitimate way of fighting Israel as an occupier. And second, because Bush needs the solid support of friendly Islamic countries in his bid to knock out those who shelter terrorists, and above all Iraq, but he doesn't need Sharon. The Arab countries have made their support of a solution to the Palestinian conflict conditional on withdrawal to 1967 borders, and Saudi Arabia has even advanced a historical proposal in this regard, but Sharon has only mocked it.

Disconcerted by the multiple suicide bombings and the fear that such incidents could recur in America, Bush initially supported our operations to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. But he was totally surprised by the riots and protests that erupted all over the world, with American and Israeli flags being burned together. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan began to fear for the stability of their regimes. The U.S. administration, thinking it had agreed to a kind of rap on the knuckles, suddenly realized that Sharon was playing that well-known shtick of his, turning a small-scale military operation into an offensive the likes of which we haven't seen for 35 years.

Bush's strategic agenda is first of all Iraq, and then a series of terrorist-harboring countries and organizations, among them Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. With growing concern, he has watched Sharon ignore the Saudi proposal, turn Arafat into a worldwide hero and relevant partner by isolating and humiliating him, inflate his government with nationalist ministers and shun all initiatives and displays of political vision.

Sharon has brought the world down on us. He is responsible for the sanctions and embargoes we are now being threatened with, and for Bush's demand that we leave all Palestinian territories immediately. There is no guarantee that Operation Defensive Shield will put an end to terror attacks, but it has done one thing for sure: it has embarrassed and infuriated America.

Refusal to comply with America's request is to provoke the one friend we have left in the world. Not to mention that we have a direct interest in the success of America's war on terrorism, which includes countries and organizations that work against Israel. Better that the club be used on Islamic terror than on us.