NEW YORK—Israeli officials have been quick to try to contain the damage done by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's outburst Thursday against the United States, in which he invoked the appeasement of Hitler in 1938 to warn Washington against making deals with Arab states at Israel's expense.
But exaggerated or not, the statement exposed a frustration many Israelis feel with the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign and a serious political problem that this campaign poses for Sharon.
Though any declaration of war on Islamic and Arab terrorism should delight Israelis--and did when it was first declared--the virtually exclusive focus on Osama bin Laden and his network, Al Qaeda, and the expansive American courtship of most Arab countries, has left Israel feeling isolated and uneasy.
The logic is simple. This is a war in which Arab allies are vital to Washington. Their price, imposed in part by the need of the Arab governments to justify working with the United States to their own public, is a visible American effort on behalf of the Palestinians.
That means American pressure on Israel for more concessions and an American readiness to overlook the organizations and states that Israel would like to see crushed as terrorists and supporters of terrorists: Hamas, Hezbollah, the various armies of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria, Iran.
Past concessions to U.S.
Israel has experienced this before. President Bush's father took similar steps to shape an alliance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and then, too, Israel was asked basically to stay out of the way. So Israelis, then under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, put on gas masks, taped up their windows and endured a hail of Iraqi Scud missiles without striking back.
At the core of the difficulties is the simple fact that the national interests of the United States and Israel have never perfectly aligned.
Although the United States has long been Israel's best friend in the world and has lavished the largest portion of its foreign aid on the Jewish state, the geopolitical interests of a global superpower are inevitably different from those of a small nation surrounded by hostile and far larger countries.
Whether because of the exigencies of the Cold War or huge Arabian oil reserves or the need to form alliances against other foes, the United States has frequently taken steps that Israel perceives as threatening, like supplying AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
The United States, moreover, has long understood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also poses a major problem for American relations with moderate Arab states, which consider Washington too friendly to Israel and too timid to put real pressure on the Israelis.
For its part, Israel has often chafed at what it sees as American pressure to take steps that might undermine Israeli security. More broadly, Israelis have always been tacitly aware that, however great American aid and support, Israel always had to be prepared to defend itself with its own means. Israel is widely known to have developed a nuclear weapon, although it has been ambiguous about it.
These tensions, however, have always been a given in American-Israeli relations, and they have never led to anything approaching a real breach. Sharon's reference to Munich went beyond what any of his predecessors have allowed themselves to say in public, and, in Israeli eyes, beyond what the current frustration warranted.
"Mentioning Munich was a gross exaggeration, a mistake, and even Israeli public opinion cannot buy that argument and saw it as hysterical," said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronot.
Sharon unlikely to relent
What Sharon's comment confirmed is that he is not the sort of man to retreat when a fight is shaping. A hawkish general who led tanks into Egypt in 1973 and, as defense minister, directed the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he would be unlikely to draw the blinds tighter and hunker down if an American attack against Al Qaeda prompted someone to aim a missile at Israel.
Almost from the time the United States began building a coalition against Al Qaeda, Sharon has warned that it should not be at Israel's expense. According to Israelis who have observed Sharon since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the prime minister has felt frustrated -- some said betrayed -- by Washington.