Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin maddens even some of his own cabinet, stuns and angers his opposition, and insults the United States. He makes a show of throwing himself on the floor and drumming his heels in a way that embarrasses many of his own people.
His defense minister, Ariel Sharon, denounces the United States as untrustworthy, soft on communism, dumb about what's going on in the real world, hell-bent on a policy (to push Israel back to its pre-1967 boundaries) that no responsible official in the Reagan administration has ever publicly or privately espoused.
His ambassador-designate to Washington, Moshe Arens, questions out loud whether a United States that violates "signed agreements" (which it didn't do) as punishment of Israel for the Golan move can any longer be counted on.
What way is that for a dependent to treat a principal means of its support and security? Or for one ally to treat another?
It is tempting to write it off as simply and uniquely Begin's way and thus, in the long view of U.S-Israeli relations, a passing thing. That would appear to be the Reagan administration approach. With varying intensity, depending on which Sunday TV show you tune in on and which member of the high command is doing the talking, the idea seems to be to slap Begin down when he acts up and, meanwhile, indulge his idiosyncracies and try to reason things out.
It won't work--not indulgence, and still less punishment--short of denials of financial or military support on a scale that no U.S. government has so far been prepared to contemplate. And the reason it hasn't worked, whether in the matter of the Baghdad and Beirut air raids or the Golan affair, is nicely captured in the observation of one of a good number of close students of the Israeli scene I've talked to in recent days:
"Begin is not an aberration. Begin is Israel."
Now that gets you into fairly heavy analysis of the Israeli psyche. To apply it to the origins and the repercussions of the Golan experience, as Chaim Herzog (a Labor Party member of the Knesset) put it the other day, requires consulting "psychologists rather than political scientists." But you can get some political sense of it by talking to critics as well as supporters of the Begin government.
What you discover, first, are all the necessary ingredients of a serious national debate on Israel's future course. On the one hand, there is Begin's fiercely nationalistic, us-against-the- world approach. This translates into sitting tight on occupied territories (the Egyptian Sinai excepted) and a hard line on an agreement under the Camp David formula for even limited "autonomy" for the West Bank and Gaza. That was a large part of the message in the Golan move.
The shorthand for this is "toughness," no give on anything--and never mind the United Nations, or the Europeans or how it may complicate American strategic initiatives with the Saudi Arabians, or what damage it does to the long-run prospects of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement that might provide Israel real and enduring security.
The alternative--"flexibility"--is laid out persuasively by oppposition leaders in discrete conversations. It translates into a measure of risk- taking, in the short run, by actively seeking accommodation with Arab adversaries. This would mean some genuine effort to advance the Camp David process, a readiness to leave some hard questions open--including specifically the question of whether "autonomy" on the West Bank and in Gaza might not someday evolve into secession and an independent Palestinian state.
In private, Labor Party figures deplore most aspects of Begin's handling of the Golan law. But their ranks broke when it came down to opposing it. Why? Because they freely concede, again privately, that the prime minister has successfully tapped into powerful, some would say irrational, strains of public sentiment.
The thumb in the American eye plays to wide resentment of American overlordship and patronage. U.S. reprisals are built up and distorted for effect. One can only suppose that they fit a siege mentality, aggravated by the U.S. strategic flirtations with Egypt and the oil producers of the Persian gulf.
The Golan move itself had its role in relieving the trauma many Israelis feel in the prospect of yielding up by April of next year the last of the Sinai desert to an untested Egyptian government, including the uprooting of an Israeli settlement, Yamit.
New surprises may be in store, new reaffirmation that toughness tells: a pre-emptive strike against PLO positions in Lebanon would require little provocation, a symbolic shift of Begin's government offices to east Jerusalem would require none. The U.S. government might wish not to be taken by surprise--and might even be opposed.
But the record of Baghdad, Beirut and now the Golan Heights suggests that for so long as there is only feeble opposition in Israel, American "punishment" of the sort we've seen so far will not stay Menachem Begin's hand.