There was a time, not so long ago, when Washington would spurn Ariel Sharon. As a mere Israeli minister, he was deemed too extreme, too tainted by his past, and too hostile to the over-sold Oslo peace accords to deserve an invitation. Now the tables have turned: Mr Sharon, the premier, is spurning the Americans.
He has decided to postpone his visit scheduled for 11 November to New York, where he was expected to meet George Bush. No one believes his excuse – the need to stay at home to attend to domestic security concerns. There are several other explanations. He may be trying to avoid being in the US when – if leaks are to be believed – it issues a policy statement on the need for a "viable Palestinian state". He may be seeking to avoid being pressured by President Bush into doing more to help the US-built anti-terror coalition, of which he disapproves.
But the main reason Mr Sharon is not going is because he can get away with it. He knows his decision has annoyed Washington, which was eager to discuss his strategy for securing a lasting ceasefire. But he also knows that nothing much will happen as a result, and that Israel's status as America's dependant-in-chief and regional ally will weather this hiatus.
It is generally accepted that the Americans have been growing steadily more angry with Israel since 11 September, and that the traditionally close relationship between the two nations has become tangled and difficult.
Mr Sharon upset them almost at once by taking even tougher military measures against the Palestinians, hoping that no one would notice. Then, he angered them again with his moves to block truce talks between his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader whom – distastefully, given the incomparable scale of the horrors in New York – he branded "Israel's bin Laden". Washington grew angrier still when he delivered his absurd remarks comparing Israel with Czechoslovakia in 1938 and called on the West to avoid "appeasing" the Arabs.
And US-Israel relations took another battering when he launched the biggest-ever post-Oslo invasion of Palestinian territory after the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister. At one point, President Bush grew so frustrated with all this that he is said to have slammed down the phone on Mr Sharon.
But deeds matter much more in this context than words or tantrums. Mr Bush has handled Israel with extreme caution – so much so that international diplomats in the region are privately tearing their hair out over the US refusal to crack the whip at Israel at a time of global crisis.
The President's behaviour is not just the reflex desire of any American politician to avoid the consequences of alienating the pro-Israel lobby and its friends in the media and Congress. It is also part of the new post-11 September geopolitics – specifically, Mr Bush's need to calm down the Middle East conflict so that it has as little impact as possible on Muslim opposition to the war in Afghanistan.
Much has been written about the efforts of the US and its allies to court the Arab and Islamic nations (with the help of Messers Blair and Straw), so that they are at least willing to keep the streets quiet as this strangely abstract war is prosecuted.
Less attention has been paid to the measures to keep Israel at bay, a task which – with Ariel Sharon in office – Washington considers both crucial and complex.
Behind the scenes, the US is as keen to ensure that Israel does not destabilise its coalition as it is to persuade the governments of Syria, Iran and Egypt of the need to co-operate. The White House knows that the price of mishandling Mr Sharon – an arch-hardliner – could be to make him even more entrenched, and more unwilling to bend to the will of the US.
Mr Sharon has spelt out his position clearly in the past few weeks, by insisting that he places what he defines as Israel's "security concerns" ahead of the US's attempts to create a broad consensus for its war. No matter that the two nations have a "special relationship", or that Israel is by far the largest recipient of US foreign aid – some $3bn a year.
In Mr Sharon's world view, Israel's conflict comes first. He cancelled his US trip, knowing that he would be applauded by many Israelis who, feeling more embattled than usual, want him to have nothing to do with what they see as America's wooing of Arab states at Israel's expense. Generally, many Israelis feel uncomfortable when their leadership falls out with the US – partly because so many have family ties, but also because the US is supposed to serve as a model of the democratic values that the country's secular majority is striving (patchily) to achieve. But this looks like an exception. As Akiva Eldar, the veteran liberal commentator for Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, pointed out wryly yesterday, Mr Sharon is "an Israeli patriot, for whom nothing, including the president of the United States, gets in the way of the supreme interest of his country ... which is to protect Israel from its Arab enemy".
Security, of course, is a much-abused concept in the Middle East. Many of Israel's recent "security" measures appear to have had little to do with the legitimate task of stopping Palestinian suicide bombers and drive-by assassins from murdering people going about their daily lives.
Disasters – like the 1996 Qana slaughter or the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacres – remain as possible today as they were when Israel caused them to happen. Which is one reason why the Americans are now wearing kid gloves. They know that it would take only one such catastrophe to blow the coalition to smithereens. They believe there is a need to tread carefully. And tread carefully, they most certainly have.
When Mr Sharon launched his latest offensive into Palestinian-run areas, seizing parts of six West Bank towns, the US State Department was at first sharply critical, calling for an "immediate" withdrawal. But this was soon watered down by Mr Bush, who referred to a pull-back as "quickly as possible". Since then, the US State Department has followed suit. And, eager to please the Israelis, the Americans also agreed to place the main players among Israel's guerrilla enemies – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – on its list of terrorists, narrowing the gap between their war against Osama bin Laden and Israel's efforts to argue that all terrorism is the same.
It should therefore be no surprise that yesterday, more than two weeks on, the Israeli army was still inside the towns of Jenin, Ramallah and Tulkarm, despite the US protests. There was a furore in April, when Israel first seized Palestinian-run land in Gaza only to pull back his tanks in less than a day, having been given a rollicking by Washington. These days invading so-called "Area A" – territory placed under Palestinian administrative and security control under the interim Oslo agreements – has become normal practice for the Israelis. Wily old General Sharon has got away with it – just as he has in snubbing his nation's paymasters and friends.Reuse content