Israelis View U.S. More Favorably --At Least, So Far

February 17, 1991|By Doug Struck

TEL AVIV — Tel Aviv.--"WE LOVE YOU again," joked an Israeli to an American, noting the sharp rise here in favorable opinion of the United States.

She added, with a smile: "It will last until the first time yo criticize us."

As Israel's stock of goodwill has risen among the public in th United States, it has been mirrored by a significant improvement in the way Israelis view Americans.

Public opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis saying they trust the United States to look after their interests in the swirl of the Gulf war. It is a remarkable finding in a nation that takes self-reliance as a fierce tenet of survival.

But the political capital from that rise of confidence may be in pyrite, not gold. Those who study opinion here say the United States cannot draw on that account to pay debts at Israel's expense.

For example, if the United States tries to accommodate its Arab allies by pushing Israel toward a settlement of the Palestinian question after the war, the goodwill may not only disappear, but could reverse.

"Israel is showing an unprecedented level of confidence in the United States," said Harry Wall, director of the Jerusalem office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "But if the Administration seems to be pressuring Israel to do something it sees against its interests, there is a boomerang effect," he said.

Pollster Mina Zemach, of the Dahaf Research Institute, documented such turnarounds resulting from American involvement in the Palestinian question.

In 1981 and again in 1988, polls showed a majority of Israelis willing to accept some plan to return occupied territories to the control of Palestinians. But when the United States weighed in to try to broker plans to do just that, it tipped Israeli public opinion toward resistance to any territorial compromise, she said.

"If Americans start pushing us to do something, Israelis don't go along," said Mrs. Zemach. "The lesson is, don't cash in on [Israeli public opinion] right away. Do it in stages."

The account balance is high. Last year, polls suggested 60 percent of Israelis had misgivings about the dependability of the friendship of the United States. But in a poll taken one week after the start of the war, 97 percent of Israelis said they believe the United States is committed to Israel's security, and 76 percent trust the United States.

That feeling is evident on a personal level. A year ago, an American journalist visiting Israel found a surprising animosity. The Palestinian uprising had taken a toll in American public opinion of Israel, and Israelis felt betrayed by Americans and the reporters who brought that news.

"Oh. An American. A reporter," said a physician then who had just treated the visitor for a minor ailment. "If I had known that, I wouldn't have seen you." He wasn't entirely joking.

But since the war began, Americans are once more in vogue. Even reporters are treated nicely, and the American crews of Patriot anti-missile batteries say they must fend off frequent "cake attacks" by Israeli mothers seeking to shower them with baked signs of appreciation.

The gratitude toward the Patriot crews is all the more significant because it is the first time foreign troops have been sent to Israel's soil to help defend the Jewish state. It has long been a foundation of Zionism that Israelis must defend themselves, and the arrival of the American GIs provoked some grumbling here.

That has been largely quieted by the sight of the fiery trail of Patriots streaking into the night sky to intercept Scud missiles aimed at Israeli cities.

But there remains an underlying sentiment -- "resentment" may be overstating the case -- that the Americans are too slow in their war tactics.

The Israeli decision not to retaliate against Iraqi missiles is expressed here in the tones of a barely restrained parent warning a trying child that the tolerance will not last long. There is only nodding recognition that Israel might be able to do less than the American-led forces. And appreciation to the U.S. fliers running regular bombing runs on Western Iraqi missile sites often seems like an afterthought.

There is much Monday-morning quarterbacking in the Israeli press that the U.S. military effort is too slow, too plodding and not bold enough. On the street, though, Israeli citizens seem more openly thankful that U.S. servicemen, and not Israelis, are doing the combat this time.

But Israelis already have put the United States on notice that their appreciation will not translate into concessions after the war. Israelis are wary the United States may feel obliged by its Arab partners in the multinational force to pressure Israel.

Israelis are more than ready to say no. When Foreign MinisteDavid Levy prepared to go to Washington last week, representatives of Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights publicly warned him not to be fooled by the warmer relations between Washington and Syria. The public would not permit any return to Syria of Golan Heights territory won in the 1967 war, they said.

"There is a sense of isolation here that is very close to th surface," said Mr. Wall, of the ADL.

If that sense is tapped by any perceived threat to Israel in which the United States has a hand, the new-found trust in America will be a quick casualty.

Doug Struck is a correspondent for The Sun.

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