Arriving at the crash site, you find rescue teams making only perfunctory efforts to tidy up the wreckage of the "special" U.S.-Israel relationship--for appearances' sake. Witnesses agree only on the bare details:
There was this loud bang as the Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin suddenly, without notice to the United States, rushed legislation through the Knesset to extend Israeli law to the 7,000 Israeli settlers and twice as many Arab (Druze) inhabitants of the strategic Golan Heights captured from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war. Then came the explosion from Washington--the suspension of work on the final formalities of agreement on a new, and rather modest, "memorandum of strategic cooperation" between the two countries and a freeze on an assortment of financial transactions involving the purchase of Israeli-manufactured military equipment valued at more than $400 million.
And then there was this ball of flame as Begin excoriated American ambassador Sam Lewis, told him pretty much what he could do with that agreement on "strategic cooperation" and then added almost unprecedented insult to injury by papering the town with a transcript of the roughest passage in his 45-minute tirade.
Not a pretty picture. And not much to go on in trying to examine the cause or assess the blame-- or figure out how the pieces of an effective working partnership between the United States and Israel can be reassembled. The sort of who-started- it slanging match you encounter in conversations with Israelis and Americans alike suggests to me, first of all, that this much-celebrated and mutually vital partnership was in dangerously fragile shape even before the Golan affair.
Worse, it suggests that the rebuilding job, diplomatic niceties and necessities aside, will require a fundamental rethinking of the common interests of both sides.
If any good is to come from this affair, it will be in the clear message it contains for the Reagan administration's Middle East strategists and policymakers: take as a given Begin's wrongheadedness, which is considerable and to some degree, perhaps, incorrigible. It may, however, be containable or subject to some influence.
But what's needed are some rather fundamental changes in the way the Reagan administration goes about dealing with the connection between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Washington search for "strategic consensus" on larger East- West concerns.
You don't, for example, have to be in sympathy with Israel's sense of profound anxiety in order to understand why it leads almost inevitably to the move on the Golan Heights.
You have only to start with Israel's deeply rooted sense of beleaguerment, setting apart how much of it may be self-imposed by its own policies. It exists. And it has been made all the more acute by the prospect of yielding up the last slice of Israeli-occupied territory on the Sinai by next April, a process that means, for the first time, uprooting settlements now on the northern Sinai.
This, the rationale goes, was trauma enough for many Israelis, and more than enough for Israeli settlers on the Golan outpost. There was pressure from them, reflected in the Knesset, to nail down their juridical status. Prime time for this was before the April deadline for a final Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty: after he has his territory back, who knows how Egypt's new president, Hosni Mubarak, might react. As it happens, he has played it cool.
The American embassy, I am informed, had predicted Begin would move on the Golan Heights before April and so advised Washington weeks ago. That is to say it was only the timing, not the intention, that came as a surprise.
Did the Reagan administration sense a need for some form or another of preventive diplomacy? Not to my knowledge. On the contrary, it was busily fanning Israel's chronic anxieties in other ways: by its warm embrace of Saudi Arabia, by its seeming indifference to that part of Camp David having to do with "autonomy" for the West Bank and Gaza, by its effort to ingratiate Mubarak, by its half-baked response to Israel's request for an offsetting strategic alliance, by its apparent top priority to countering the Soviets.
That was how it looked to a frustrated Begin, bedridden and in pain--or so the explanation goes. Accordingly, for a host of other reasons -- from the Polish distraction that encouraged a belief that the Soviets would do nothing for their Syrian clients, to internal politics--Begin struck. His miscalculation of Reagan was profound-- but no less so than Reagan's was of him.