A copious crying of crocodile tears marked the world's reaction to the Israeli strike against Iraq's nuclear facility. Despite their condemnation, most countries -- including most Arab countries -- benefit from the action.
Israel's gains, however, are move than offset by deepening isolation in the international community. When Israeli voters go to the polls three weeks hence, they should know that the government of Menachem Begin is alienating even their best friend, the United States.
The current Iraqi regime, to be sure, is one of the world's most beastly. President Saddam Hussein and a few members of his family rule, thanks to a series of purges that brought violent ends to scores of former collaborators. Opponents of the regime have been hunted across international borders and murdered in such capitals as Paris and London.
Force, or the threat of force, has been directed by Iraq against most of its neighbors -- including Turkey to the north, Kuwait to the south and Syria to the west. The war launched by Iraq against Iran in the east last September was a case of naked aggression largely undertaken to assert primacy in the Persian Gulf.
The world's true opinion of Iraq, and of the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, is that they deserve each other. Hence the striking passivity, the well-nigh incredible tolerance, shown for an ongoing war by most of the world's leading claimants to be makers of peace or keepers of order.
The United States has not lifted a finger to stop the fighting between Iran and Iraq. Russia has sat on its hands. Kurt Waldheim, the United Nations secretary general, has shown more than his usual ineffectiveness. The pope has been virtually mute.
Even the occasional shuttle between Baghdad and Tehran by the organization of Islamic countries has its cynical elements. Saudi Arabia finds in the war an occasion to create a council of the Persian Gulf that Iran or Iraq would have squashed had they not been otherwise engaged. Pakistani officials, fully mindful that a settlement is not on, participate in the peace effort as a way of burnishing their Islamic credentials.
So diminishing Iraq's potential to do harm, particularly nuclear harm, is no big bad thing. What is a big bad thing is the disposition of the Begin government to show contempt for the United States, to act as though Jerusalem could define its security objectives without reference to Washington, could behave, indeed, as though Israel could tell the United States to "stuff it."
The undoubtful fact is that the raid was made without any sensitivity to American interests or American problems. The Israelis struck at a time when American diplomacy was engaged, through the mission of Ambassador Philip Habib, in a promising effort to ease tension in the Middle East by restoring the integrity of Lebanon. In conducting the raid, the Israelis violated the air space of a country crucial to the Habib mission -- Saudi Arabia. They also embarrassed the leader of a country absolutely central to American hopes in the Middle East -- Ansar Sadat of Egypt, who was compromised because the strike followed by only three days a meeting between Begin and the Egyptian president.
Finally, there was no effort to muffle the blow. The Israelis did not camouflage their planes, as they had done before. They did not let the Iraqis pretend that nothing had happened. On the contrary, the Begin government announced the attack in a blare of self-praise that suggested a crass electoral maneuver.
The Reagan administration, unlike the Carter administration, has done nothing to warrant such treatment. It has been supportive of Israeli objectives in the Middle East and at the United Nations. It leans more toward Israel than the majority of American opinion. So by treating Washington in cavalier fashion at this time, Begin throws down a gage.
In riposte, the United States ought to look closely into the matter of how near the Iraqis really were to obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material. Washington should hold Israel to account for breach of the agreement that limits use of American military equipment to self-defense. Americans need not be afraid to point out that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, does not look more prone to use terrorist tactics than Menachem Begin.
Washington, in sum, can play electoral games as well as Jerusalem. Israeli voters need to know how completely, without the United States, their country is alone in the world. They should see that if that want to prevent Israel from becoming a pariah state, they can do themselves a big favor in the coming election by voting Begin out of office.