From at least one standpoint, Osama bin Laden must be pleased as punch. He has managed to cause a feud between the Big Satan and the Little Satan. One terror attack on America has done to the romance between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon what dozens of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel and in the territories have been unable to do. Finally, the Arab world can derive some comfort from Islamic fanatics after they turned the Arabs into the "bad guys" in American eyes.
First of all, reports appeared throughout the world that of all the leaders on the face of the globe, Israel's prime minister was the only one to turn his back on the president of the United States in the latter's most difficult hour. Over the weekend, Bush and Sharon traded verbal blows, reverberations of which were greeted with immense satisfaction throughout the Middle East.
It has been written on numerous occasions that Sharon, like his right-wing predecessors in the Prime Minister's Office, has not remained indifferent to the international landscape that can be viewed from the lofty heights of the PMO. Many people have said that Sharon has changed, that he is not the same Ariel Sharon who urged then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to ignore America's request that Israel not respond to Iraqi Scud missile attacks. Many people have said that this is not the same Ariel Sharon who, displaying an expertise in hamstringing the government, tried to sabotage the Madrid peace conference.
Well, what has caused Sharon to resume his old bad habits? Sharon's "outburst" aimed at Bush was not just an instinctive reaction, not just some "national erection." Sharon's speech had been prepared in advance and he read out the text of that speech into the microphone. It seems reasonable to assume that the person who wrote that speech also took into account a self-evident point: If America's distancing itself from Israel was intended to placate the Arabs, what possible reason could the prime minister have to cause the Americans to increase that distance? No matter how justified the criticism of Bush's actions might be, it is obvious that Israel's international stature will not be enhanced by an open rift with the United States. You do not have to head Israel's National Security Council to understand that any erosion in America's commitment to Israeli national security - even an erosion in the very image of that commitment - will certainly not contribute to the deterrent capacity that Sharon flaunts so often.
The roots of the confrontation between Sharon and George W. Bush must therefore be sought in the circumstances that ultimately led to the open rift between Shamir and Bush's father. Sharon was not thrilled by the demand made by then U.S. president George Bush that Israel, the loyal wife, look aside while Bush courts Israel's violent neighbors. Shamir clenched his teeth and held his tongue to prevent the Arabs from detecting even the slightest sign of a domestic squabble. In October 1991, after the Gulf War, when Shamir understood that his refusal to accept an invitation to participate in a peace conference could produce a very vocal feud with the U.S., he turned up at Madrid.
Shamir began to turn American Jewish communal leaders against Bush and to incite the U.S. Congress against the president when the former prime minister's vision of a Greater Israel was on a clear collision course with the former president's vision of a new Middle East. The same Yitzhak Shamir who had bowed to the American demand that Israel not retaliate in the wake of Iraqi missile attacks was not prepared to even consider the idea of a freeze on Jewish settlements in the territories. The same individual who believed that "for the sake of the Land of Israel, one can lie if necessary," went right ahead - in the name of that sacred cause - and generated a crisis in Israel's relations with the U.S. administration, as he willingly waived American financial guarantees for the absorption of new immigrants and sabotaged his chances of winning the next general election.
In Sharon's case as well, the determination to strengthen the Jewish hold on the territories and to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state on Israel's borders take precedence over any strategic assets. As far as Sharon is concerned, Bushes may come and Bushes may go but Beit El will go on forever.
It seems logical to assume that Prime Minister Sharon is furious that Syria and Iran are being appeased and that an understanding attitude is being displayed toward both Hezbollah and Hamas. However, his biggest frustration is George W. Bush's stubborn insistence on meeting Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in New York City, instead of doing what Sharon has repeatedly demanded - namely, treating the Palestinian leader as someone who has murdered New Yorkers.
Sharon was the chief hamstringer in the Israeli government when the coalition established to fight Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein reopened the famous window of opportunity that led to both Madrid and Oslo. Sharon has good reason to fear that the coalition being formed to fight bin Laden could free the rusty hinges of that window. His "Czechoslovakia 1938" speech was thus neither an error nor a Freudian slip of the tongue. It is instead a warning that Sharon is transmitting to the compilers of the "Palestine 2001" speech that is being prepared in the offices of the U.S. administration.