Restraint brings Israel psychological as well as political benefits WAR IN THE GULF

January 28, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Israelis are reaping the rewards of patience.

The nation that in the past had won admiration for its gutsy will to act now finds itself in the unusual spot of being loudly hailed for doing nothing.

And they like it.

Israel's restraint and willingness so far to take Iraqi missiles without fighting back is proving surprisingly popular among the Israeli public.

Pollster Elihu Katz last week was startled to find 80 percent of respondents opposed retaliation for the attacks. The survey was taken before there were four fatalities from rockets, but Mr. Katz said Friday, "I don't expect a radical change."

"We assumed that Israelis are very hot-headed for retaliation after every terrorist attack," he said. "This assumption may be wrong."

Those attitudes also may be swayed by recognition of the benefits of restraint. Israelis cannot help but notice they suddenly are the toast of the Western world after several years in which they were not even invited to the party.

"What has happened is the original Israeli paradigm is restored: the David and Goliath image of a beleaguered, small Israel under attack from hostile Arab nations," said Dore Gold, an analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

"Two years of intifada, of scenes of Israeli soldiers chasing teen-agers with rocks, had left of lot of the people feeling very uncomfortable," he said. "Now there's an outpouring of sympathy and relief."

The effect of that in political capital is most obvious in Israel's relations with the United States. The administration has ended its estrangement from Israel, aggravated by the Palestinian issue, with a warm embrace.

President Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly have talked more in the last two weeks than in the previous two years. If accounts of their conversations are to believed, the talks are friendly and even affectionate, remarkable for two men who were said to have disliked each other.

"The relationship was unsteady for a couple years. I believe the pendulum is now moving back," said David Kimche, former head of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Credits are coming from other points of the globe. Delegations from Germany and France arrived last week to offer their support.

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher brought a promise of $165 million and sat for a remarkable public dressing-down by the Israeli foreign minister who raged at Germany's failure to stop German companies from selling tools for chemical war to Iraq.

The French minister arrived with the news that the European Community had lifted all trade restrictions on Israel.

More dramatic, according to Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, is the political legitimacy Israel has won from Saudi Arabia and Syria.

"Who would have dreamed that Syria would affirm Israel's right to self-defense," wondered Uriel Lynn, a Likud member of the Knesset, in the Jerusalem Post. "Israel has entered a new era."

"These are countries that until a few weeks ago said Israel doesn't even have a right to exist," said Mr. Steinberg. "When they said Israel can retaliate, they were acknowledging Israel."

These new relations can pay off handsomely if the multinational forces prevail and still feel a debt of gratitude to Israel, he said.

"The United States is going to win the war, and it's going to be the dominant power in the Middle East for some time to come," he predicted. Israel will be on the right side. The Palestinians, whose cause has created friction between the governments, will find less support in the United States for largely backing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Restraint may also pay more directly. While Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger was in town, Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai took the opportunity to suggest that the United States should pay $13 billion to Israel in money and loan guarantees.

The staggering sum included $3 billion for lost tourism, lost work, higher insurance premiums and military costs of the war, and $10 billion in economic aid to help settle Soviet immigrants in the next five years.

The boldness of his timing shocked even Israelis. "Shameless," said one. Noted another, "He certainly lacks finesse." By week's end the government was backpedaling, noting that there was no formal request for that much money.

Still, there is likely to be an increase in assistance to Israel, which at $3 billion a year is already the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. And the sympathy for Israel has opened up private purses.

"American Jews have rallied behind Israel," said Harry Wall, director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League in Jerusalem. "This crisis will help draw Israeli and American Jewry closer together."

Those benefits have bolstered the Israeli government's decision to stay its military hand. After the initial missile attack, it was common wisdom here that if the attacks continued and fatalities occurred, Israel would strike back.

But the poll by Mr. Katz found an amazingly high 94 percent level of support for the government, a support that last November was just 20 percent.

Still, analysts wonder how long Israeli restraint can last, despite the rewards. A particularly deadly missile attack, use of chemical weapons, or an aerial bombing by Iraq could provoke a reaction, they say.

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