Two wars-in-waiting in the Middle East have turned the once predictable diplomatic scene in Washington topsy-turvy, raising questions about American strategic priorities and the capital's sense of values.
Saudi Arabia's princely envoy, Bandar bin Sultan, who lives the life of the rich and famous, gets a welcome from the Pentagon and the White House that was once reserved for Israel's ambassador. It is Bandar, the son of the Saudi defense minister and reputedly King Fahd's favorite nephew, who talks targeting and war objectives in the White House today, just as Yitzhak Rabin did during the Jordan crisis of September 1970, the formative foreign policy experience of the Nixon White House.
Meanwhile Zalman Shoval, the newly arrived top diplomat from Jerusalem, should qualify for combat pay if his government's relations with the White House get any worse.
"We sometimes have the feeling that we are slowly being turned into that odd cousin that the family keeps in the back room when visitors come," Shoval says softly in response to a question about Israel's silent partner role in the Persian Gulf crisis.
The decision to go to war to free Kuwait belongs to Washington and Riyadh, who have drawn together as strategic allies overnight. The other almost war -- the slide toward civil war between Arab and Jew in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- has meanwhile driven Washington and Jerusalem apart.
The Bush administration holds the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir responsible for not halting the slide. Shamir just as clearly has given up on the Bush White House. A strategic partnership three decades in the making appears endangered by the lengthening Saudi shadow along Embassy Row and the openly expressed bitterness between Washington and Jerusalem.
In Washington folklore, the Israeli ambassador was usually a giant among diplomatic pygmies. The Israeli envoy has been emblematic of the U.S.-Israeli relationship itself.
In the Nixon-Kissinger years, Gen. Rabin strode the town as a warrior prince in the wake of the 1967 Israeli victory over the Arabs, winning over policy makers and press corps alike. Then came Simcha Dinitz, an engaging political operator and Golda Meir prote'ge' who cemented Israel's standing in Congress, just as Moshe Arens, now Israel's minister of defense, would later lay the foundation for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation in the Reagan administration.
Before the brash, gregarious Bandar arrived, Saudi ambassadors made it onto few Washington Rolodexes outside the small circles interested in oil and banking. But fate and Bandar have changed that.
In the heat of the Lebanon crisis in 1982, Arens adopted a confrontational approach toward Americans he perceived to be critical of Israel. That approach continued after Arens left Washington and the Likud coalition hardened its position on retaining the occupied territories. The intifada erupted, and U.S. sympathy for Israel slipped sharply.
Now comes Shoval, a soft-spoken, sophisticated former Knesset member who began his career in the David Ben-Gurion wing of the Labor party and was close to Moshe Dayan before joining the Likud. This combination politician-diplomat shows early signs of wanting to lower the temperature and put Israeli-U.S. relations on a calmer footing. But he is also honest enough to admit how hard that is likely to be.
Chance brought him to a Washington rite of passage -- an introductory lunch at The Washington Post -- on the day the United States voted in the United Nations a second time to condemn Israel in the Temple Mount shootings. How, Shoval was asked, could the Shamir government misjudge and announce a new housing settlement in East Jerusalem at the height of the uproar over the killing of Palestinian demonstrators? His answer was instructive of the problems he faces in trying to bridge a widening gap:
"The timing was intentional," not a matter of misjudgment. "The Jewish people feel themselves under siege. They feel they are being unfairly treated by the United Nations, and this was a reaction: you are not going to treat us like that."
It was war for lunch the following day as chance again brought Prince Bandar to The Post for a similar meeting with editors and reporters. A decade in Washington, Bandar showed how much he has absorbed of the capital's ways by refusing to predict that a coalition victory over Iraq would automatically mean that the Arabs would replace Israel as America's strategic partner in the Middle East.
"From a realistic standpoint, we might then be getting close to having a relationship like the U.S.-Israeli relationship," Bandar said. "But that would depend on what we do politically in our countries" in the way of reforms.
It was an answer intended to appeal in its modesty and stress on realism. Those are qualities that helped Israel once dominate Washington. The Saudi ambassador, it seems, would model his country's links to Washington on the old U.S.-Israeli relationship. But that should not be so surprising. The new Israeli ambassador would settle for that too.