Diplomatic Train Wreck

Israeli officials were stunned by Monday’s stern State Department rebuke over Israel’s stepped-up military effort against the Palestinian Authority. And the fact they were surprised hints of deeper trouble to come along the U.S.-Israel axis.

Put simply, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just doesn’t get it.

Sharon, squeezed by his divided unity government and incensed by the slippery Yasser Arafat, has failed to grasp just how much every diplomatic and political calculation has changed in Washington since Sept. 11.

Sharon continues to believe that Israel mostly faces just another public relations problem; if misunderstandings occur, a pro-Israel Congress and powerful Jewish groups will keep the administration on a pro-Israel path.

And he seems to believe that the terror attacks in Washington and New York increased his latitude in dealing with the Palestinians; in fact, the reverse may be true.

The results of those misperceptions could prove disastrous to U.S.-Israel relations, especially if the war produces new shocks for the administration and new traumas for a fearful population.

It is a longstanding assumption among pro-Israel leaders that the interests of the United States and Israel, both democracies, are inherently compatible.

But in the real world, the goal of supporting fellow democracies is easily discarded when other priorities come to the fore, as India is learning through the Bush administration’s wooing of her bitter enemy, undemocratic Pakistan.

Today’s priorities center on the urgent U.S. desire to build an international anti-terrorist coalition that includes countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

That means Washington is unwilling to defy a corrupt, dictatorial regime in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, which has taken up the Palestinian cause in part to deflect the anger of its own impoverished, oppressed citizens.

Years of U.S. head-in-the-sand energy policy have added to the feeling of urgency about relations with the desert kingdom, and never mind that the Saudis have supported the terrorists we are now fighting.

And it means a new, desperate U.S. demand for some semblance of progress in ending Israeli-Palestinian violence.

This is the real world, impinging on a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is based on shared values and a democratic outlook — commonalities that mean a lot in good times, but in bad times can be squeezed out by high-priority expediencies.

The pro-Israel lobby in Washington and a supportive Congress may not be enough to offset this new international calculus.

Support for Israel remains strong on Capitol Hill, but politicians across the spectrum understand that they will be judged on how well they protect American lives in this new era of bio-holy war, not on how staunchly they defend Israel.

A year ago, political support for Israel was essentially cost-free; today, politicians have to wonder whether the trials that lie ahead will someday make such support risky.

Also, Congress is simply less of a force in U.S. policy. At times of national crisis, the balance of power shifts to the White House, a process that is already underway in Washington.

Sept. 11 didn’t just reshuffle the deck; it began a whole new game in Washington. Israel’s leaders show few signs they understand that reality.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) incursions into six Palestinian towns in response to last week’s assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister may have been justified in strategic terms. And even in a very distracted Washington, there is an appreciation of the political challenges Sharon faces as he juggles his fractured, fractious “unity” government.

But the timing and extent of the military escalation and Sharon’s defiant attitude were seen here as reflecting a disregard for the overarching U.S. interest in tamping down the conflict.

The fact that visiting Israeli officials are still demanding that Washington treat Yasser Arafat as a terrorist — an action certain to aggravate U.S. coalition woes — adds to the impression that Israeli leaders haven’t a clue about the seismic shift here.

Sharon’s dilemma is agonizing. If he gives in to Washington, he could push his teetering government coalition over the edge, and, he believes, jeopardize Israel’s security.

But if he continues to ignore changed U.S. concerns, or treat the problem as a matter of PR, not substance, he will put U.S.-Israel relations in jeopardy at a moment when every U.S. foreign relationship is being judged according to different benchmarks.

He will add to the problem if he continues to foster the impression that his only vision for ending the current crisis involves tanks and troops, and that he has set the bar impossibly high for the Palestinians.

That may not be fair, and it may not reflect Israel’s real interests. But it is the new diplomatic reality Israel faces in dealings with her only real ally.

Only smart, pragmatic and possibly uncomfortable decisions by Sharon — decisions that address some of America’s needs and concerns — will avert the U.S.-Israel train wreck waiting to happen around the corner.