When the news broke that Saddam Hussein was captured, there was an uproar of joy here. Like many Israelis, I was glued to the TV screen, watching L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, announcing proudly: "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!"
What a great moment for the free world.
A minute later, however, I couldn't believe my eyes. A U.S. military physician showed up on the screen, checking someone who looked like a homeless man, probing his wild beard and hair (looking for lice?) and examining his open mouth like a dentist (or was it a search for traces of the missing unconventional weapons?).
This scene was repeated endlessly on television, surely to become one of the famous pictures of this decade. What a mistake. America's position and conduct in Iraq are delicate enough, even without such humiliation.
"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth," said Solomon the Wise, "and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs, 24,17). He knew why: "Lest the Lord see it, and it displeases Him, and He turns away His wrath from him."
The way the captured Saddam was exposed would outrage not only Islamic fanatics, those self-anointed ambassadors of Allah's wrath, but also simple Iraqis, who would resent the blow to what's left of their national pride.
So many times in Israel, after a suicide attack, we found out that the terrorist or one of his close relatives had been humiliated in this way or another. Not that the terrorists need excuses, but why rub salt into wounds?
Having said that, the fact that Saddam was finally captured is much more important than the way it was done. This dramatic event carries some significant messages for the Middle East players.
For the Israelis, there should be a sense of confidence in their powerful U.S. allies. In the long campaign against state terror and aggressive tyrants of the Middle East, Israel is not alone.
Yet, it is better not to overlook the subtle message involved. American determination is universal; it is as tough when it comes to chasing enemies as it is when pursuing peace.
Anyone who thinks that in an election year, U.S. administrations can be fooled is only fooling himself. If the recent moderate noises made by top Israeli politicians are not genuine, and are nothing but a smoke screen, then that is a big mistake.
Yasser Arafat should also pay close attention. He should play the video clip of Saddam's capture over and over again and mind the U.S. soldier standing next to a wooden box, which Saddam kept in his pit and which contained $750,000. Neither this sum nor the billions this "kleptocrat" stole from his people saved him at the end.
Last but not least is Bashar Assad of Syria. With Saddam gone, he is the last Ba'ath Party dictator in our neighborhood. Surely he has reasons to be nervous. Gone are the good old days of his father, when the United States was so far away, busy with other things.
Suddenly, with mighty U.S. troops at his border, it has become dangerous for Assad to harbor terrorist groups in Damascus and, together with Iran, play his Hezbollah proxy against Israel. No wonder that, out of the blue, he recently said he wanted to resume talks with Israel. No doubt he is feeling the heat.
If I were Assad, I would try a fake beard -- just in case. Â
Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.