And if We Strip the Emperor Naked

The greatest danger is that on Israel's 54th Independence day, those wishing Israel harm in the Middle East will reach the conclusion that the U.S. has washed its hands of the conflict.

On Israel's 54th birthday, the most prominent characteristic of the state is the moral, political and economic price being paid for being a state without borders. In exchange, its citizens don't even get hope for improvement in their personal safety. And that's not all. By rejecting the proposal to turn the Green Line into the international border, which for the first time this year was formally recognized by the Arab League, Israel could be losing a strategic asset of invaluable proportions: The Sharon government is daily eroding the credibility of the U.S. In simple terms, Israel is shooting at its own deterrent capability.

Seemingly, the skies did not cave in on Sharon when he turned down the public pleas by U.S. President George W. Bush to withdraw from the Palestinian cities. The terror attack in Mahane Yehuda overnight turned Israel from the occupier to the victim. Even senior officials in Secretary of State Colin Powell's entourage told their Israeli counterparts on Friday that they understand them. You don't want to leave the Palestinian cities? Don't. You oppose an international peacekeeping force. We won't pressure you. You insist on settling more Jews in the territories - good luck to them.

The way things looked yesterday from the American side, they'll go back to the banks of the Potomac River in Washington and watch as the Israelis and Palestinians sink further into the mud. And they'll even keep on blaming Yasser Arafat. Benjamin Netanyahu has already convinced the Congress that it's terror, not the occupation, that is to blame for everything.

But the Israeli government's scorn for the U.S. is weakening, among Israel's neighbors, the voice of Israel's best friend. Israel tells America to shove it today, and tomorrow the Arabs will do the same. Fear of "American pressure" was in recent years a practical tool used by moderate Arab leaders. The minute the Israeli government exposes the weakness of the president of the United States, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudis also get the impression that the emperor wears no clothes.

All we need to do is ask ourselves if Sharon's refusal to leave the territories will make it easier to get the nuclear weapons out of Iraq and Iran, or make it more difficult for the Americans to enlist Arab (and European, Russian and Chinese) support for action against Israel's most dangerous neighbors. Did Israel's indifference to the American decision to adopt the Saudi initiative's principles help Vice President Richard Cheney's efforts to pressure Bashar Assad into restraining the Hezbollah?

Some of the answers to these questions can be found in an article by the veteran Saudi ambassador to America, Prince Bander bin Sultan, published last week in Arab News. Bin Sultan, who was one of those who helped work out the Saudi initiative, starts by saying he is proud and unashamed to be a friend of the U.S. From his perspective, he argues, both the Palestinian and the Israeli citizenry have been victims of the occupation - but now, American interests around the world will become victims of the occupation. The government of Israel's policies prove that Israel is a strategic burden for America, at times of crisis in the Middle East, he writes.

According to the senior Arab diplomat, the violence toward the Muslim and Christian population in the occupied territories gravely sabotages any chances for a successful American policy against international terror. He reminds his readers that the American policy won the backing of the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Morocco. The prince says that when he says that Israel's behavior changes the equation and influences the international campaign against terror, he is not pretending to speak in the name of the leaders of the Arab world. But, he immediately adds, "something tells me" that in the near future his words will represent the feelings of the Arab world's leaders, and then the danger will be serious and real.

The greatest danger is that on Israel's 54th Independence day, those wishing Israel harm in the Middle East will reach the conclusion that the U.S. has washed its hands of the conflict. Until it is made clear to them that the Americans do not really intend to abandon the citizens of Israel to their government and the policies it has chosen, the price we'll all play could become unbearable.