About two weeks into the Gulf crisis, the phrase that comes to mind is not some bloodcurdling Arab oath from the desert but a more prosaic one from the San Fernando Valley: ''Gag me with a spoon.'' What with Arab leaders kissing one another with abandon, proclaiming brotherhood and twisting logic into a pretzel, the first order of business ought to be for everyone just to shut up. Jordan's King Hussein should go first.
The Little King has been popping around the Middle East saying the most incredible things. Having sided first with Iraq, King Hussein has since been doing a good imitation of a ping-pong ball. Of only one thing does he seem sure: Iraq's seizure of Kuwait is no different from Israel's seizure of the West Bank.
Hussein seems to be suffering a seizure of his own. He apparently forgets that Israel took the West Bank from Jordan only after it had warned him to stay out of the 1967 Mideast war. As if foreshadowing his more recent vacillation, the king pondered, hesitated -- and then made the wrong decision. He attacked Israel, losing East Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank. Of course, none of it was rightly his in the first place.
Because I have written frequently that Israel should turn the West Bank over to its Palestinian residents (not to Jordan), it might seem strange to quibble now about Hussein's recent statements. Maybe. But the king's willingness to equate territory seized by Israel after he attacked it with the invasion and looting of innocent Kuwait is fairly typical -- not only for him, but for the Middle East in general. This is a part of the world where truth is rarer than water, history is rewritten by propaganda ministries and everyone seems a bit slow seeing the astoundingly obvious.
Had King Hussein not attacked Israel in 1967, the West Bank might still be his. But had the Arab states in general stood up to Saddam Hussein of Iraq anywhere along the line, they might not now be in such a fix. Not quite two years ago, for instance, the United States belatedly condemned Iraq for using poison gas against its own Kurdish minority. How did the late, lamented nation of Kuwait react to that statement? It summoned the U.S. ambassador to express its ''deep concern'' about this unjustified charge. Presumably, it has since changed its mind.
And so, for that matter, have Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Those two nations, our new best pals, criticized Washington for criticizing Iraq. The Arab League condemned not Iraq for killing its own people but the Western media for raising the issue -- and reaffirmed its ''total solidarity'' with Baghdad.
Poor Saddam Hussein was snookered. He was led to believe he could get away with anything -- just as long as he dressed up what he did in the garb of anti-Zionism. As tepid as Washington's condemnation was, it was still too hot for the Arab states.
Soon after Iraq's recent invasion of Kuwait, Israeli government leaders went on an orgy of "I-told-you-so." They implied that the world, especially the United States, would be wise to lay off Israel and understand, as it does, that it is surrounded by volatile states led by volatile leaders. Sorry. Israeli intransigence is partly responsible for the situation in the Middle East. Things would be a lot easier for everyone involved if Israel had reached a territorial accord with the Palestinians -- or at least seemed willing to negotiate.
But while Israel is no innocent bystander, it remains something its neighbors are not: a democracy. That's important. It means, among other things, that its government represents its people. As in the United States, democracy produces a certain consistency. Political battles are waged at the margins. Labor or Likud, the nation remains pretty much what it is. Its values are known, because they are not the values of a leader or a political party but of the people.
This is not the case with the Arab states, not a single one of which is a democracy, and some of which (Saudi Arabia) are now being touted as our new best friends in the Middle East -- worthy of replacing Israel as our strategic partner. But just as surely as these nations once condemned the United States for condemning Iraq's use of poison gas or, in the case of Jordan's King Hussein, muddle the difference between self-defense and aggression, changing events may make them change their tune. These are nations built on sand and rhetoric -- and both can shift when the wind next changes.