Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon goes calling today on his American counterpart, Madeleine Albright, amid a furor here over signs that he is not exactly thrilled about the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
At the Washington meeting, Secretary of State Albright is expected to convey U.S. displeasure over recent statements in which the hawkish Sharon suggested that NATO intervention could help transform an autonomous Kosovo into a springboard for Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
For the second time in two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to distance himself from Sharon's statements and said the foreign minister was merely expressing his personal opinion. Sharon's comments were widely criticized here as ill-timed and insensitive.
"It is not as if people don't think about these things, but this isn't the time to talk about it," one senior Israeli official said.
The flap over Sharon's remarks comes as part of a wider debate in Israel over the government's initial ambivalence about the crisis, in which top leaders were reluctant to criticize a historical ally, the Serbs, or alienate a newfound friend, Russia, which has close ties with Serbia.
Sharon has called on both the Yugoslav government and U.S.-led NATO forces to end the "human tragedy" unfolding in the southern Balkans, and he signed off on aid shipments to Albania and Macedonia. But some Israelis complain that Sharon has delivered neither the full support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nor the stern condemnation of Yugoslavia that might be expected from a staunch U.S. ally.
His reticence is in marked contrast to the rest of the country, which is enthusiastically holding telethons, rallies and fund-raising drives in support of Kosovo Albanian refugees. Six planeloads of food, tents and other supplies have been dispatched and a 100-bed field hospital set up in Macedonia, which has sheltered many refugees.
Israel also announced that it will accept an initial group of 100 Muslim refugees and give them the same financial aid package that immigrating Jews receive.
After his meeting with Albright, Sharon will head for Moscow on Sunday. The trip--his third to meet with senior Russian officials in just two months--is sure to irk the Americans.
The scheduled visit comes as the Russian government is at sharp odds with the United States over the Yugoslavia operation, and it is seen as part of Israel's efforts to strengthen its relations with Russia. Netanyahu also went on the last trip, two days before NATO launched its air campaign. Sharon's aides said he will again try to persuade the Russians to halt the flow of potentially dangerous technology to Iran.
Israeli ties with Washington, traditionally among the closest in the world, have suffered in the wake of a stagnating U.S.-backed Middle East peace process. Although Israel and the Palestinians share responsibility, several U.S. officials have singled out Israel for blame for the slow pace in executing agreements signed last fall.
U.S. officials had delayed Sharon's meeting with Albright for several months, another sign of the tensions that are not expected to abate now.
In a speech to American Jewish leaders this week, Sharon warned of the dangers that could spring from giving Kosovo Albanians an independent state: "It [the state] is liable in the future to turn into a part of Greater Albania, and to serve as a base for radical Islamic terrorism--a core of which already exists there--that may spread throughout Europe."
The statements, which echoed the Serbian position verbatim, were widely reported in Israel and not disputed by the Foreign Ministry.
"Sharon is acting like a bull in the china shop of international diplomacy," said Yossi Sarid, head of the leftist Meretz Party.