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An Israeli academic told a seminar in Washington that friends shouldn't quarrel - this while a dispute raged over the administration's demand that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw immediately from Area A. Relations between states are based on interests, not friendship, retorted a retired American diplomat who served many years in the Middle East.

Both are right - as a rule, states don't have feelings. However, relations between the United States and Israel have always been an exception and heretical questions about whether this is worthwhile have come up only rarely in recent years. It happened during the Pollard spy scandal. It is happening now, after the prime minister of Israel offended a president of the United States in his "Czechoslovakia" speech, and in his rejection of pleas to help out America's war effort by keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a low burner.

Over the years Americans have been told the friendship with Israel is based on common values - Israel was almost an American project. Presidents don't authorize the largest share of the foreign aid budget for Israel because of perks they get from wealthy Jews.

Over generations members of Congress have not been supporting Israel simply - or even primarily - from fear of the long arm of AIPAC lobbyists. Nor is the support based on national or global cost-benefit calculations.

Even during the Cold War, relations between the United States and Israel were based on foundations whose depth cannot be measured by the number of joint military exercises, or by the quality of intelligence information that flowed from either side of the ocean.

The importance of Israel's military power when the U.S. faced extremist local powers failed twice in the past ten years. The contribution Israel could make to America's war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, like the contribution it wanted to make against Saddam Hussein, can be summed up as a request not to get in the way.

However, although the myth that Israel is a strategic asset for the United States has been significantly eroded, America's commitment to Israel's security and well-being remains steady. The special relations between the two states survived even during the first Bush administration and the government of Yitzhak Shamir, and during Bill Clinton's administration and Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The Soviet Union came and the Soviet Union went, a Bush went and a Bush came, interests come and interests go - the friendship remains in place. On the day the Americans begin to ponder that friendship, Israel will be in trouble.

When they demand the principle of reciprocity as propounded by the school of Netanyahu, the same Netanyahu who is preaching the rejection of the request by Israel's best friend, the Arabs might well come to the hasty conclusion that the Jews really have been left on their own.

In a conversation last week with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden Jr. (Dem., Delaware), warned that it is the Israeli government's current behavior that is opening the discussion on the nature of the friendship between the two countries.

The impression Peres' people formed of the meetings with heads of the administration and Congress was that the prime minister was not relating to them as a friend should. They were referring primarily to relations of trust and consideration.

If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes an effort, he really can convince the Americans that in relations between countries - including the United States and Israel - friendship has no role.

Another slap in the face of their president, and the Americans will accept Sharon's approach - every state for itself and its own interests. If he continues to squabble with them, we will have no reason to be surprised at them hanging out the dirty family laundry for all the neighbors to see.