Yitzhak Shamir is a tiny man, so when his face showed up against the billowy blue wall of the Convention Center last week it looked like Victorian cameo pinned primly to the bosom of a Baltimore Jewish matron.
More startling still, a bit of electronic magic suddenly flashed on the wall two identical and enormous squares of light, like two giant breast-plates from each of which vastly enlarged Shamir faces -- now you could see the fighter's jaw, the intellectual's high brow -- began smiling and nodding in tandem at the assemblage. If the scene was a little surreal, the prime minister's mission was reality itself, bordering on desperation.
Were American Jews deserting him? In crisis had they gone deaf to the ancient call -- ''next year, in Jerusalem''? If so, wasn't this disaster? Wasn't it the beginning of fatal erosion in the democratic world's most dramatic extension of its own political and cultural values?
Mr. Shamir couldn't be sure. Comfortingly the bigshots of the Council of Jewish Federations -- Max Fisher, Charles Bronfman -- insisted if a little too loudly on undying ''unity'' between Israel and America. The crowd in the Convention Center, heavily spattered with yarmulkes, roared furious approval at nearly every sentence the prime minister uttered.
And yet, beyond Baltimore, there were those damned straws in the wind which seemed to be blowing the other way.
A pollster in California -- a Jewish pollster, at that, operating in a Jewish university -- reported that four American Jewish leaders in five thought the Shamir policy on the Palestinians -- don't give them an inch -- is too harsh. Instead they were found to favor some sort of land deal with the Palestinians, a deal which preserves Israel's security and Jerusalem's integrity -- hands off that! -- but which converts four decades of miserable, indecisive war to an enveloping Jewish-Arab peace. The same day another California analyst, also Jewish, wrote in The Sun that rank-and-file Jews were a lot more dovish even than their leaders assembled in Baltimore.
Before he left Israel the prime minister had felt a strongly disapproving American judge. From its beginning the Bush administration has stared coldly at him. Recently Jim Baker, cleverly angling for a soft Israeli confrontation in Madrid with the Palestinians, handed him an invitation he couldn't refuse or he would have. Grudgingly Mr. Shamir went to Madrid and stonewalled. Next week he is summoned to Washington, probably to stonewall again.
He certainly stonewalled in Baltimore, recounting yet again the truly valiant stand the Israelis have made in half a dozen Arab wars, and once more the envenomed, totalitarian world the Arabs want to live up to and which Washington wants to live down. In his shrewdest shot at the Bush White House Mr. Shamir said: ''The new era, the New World Order, has not reached the Middle East.''
How sadly true. But how sadly familiar. Engaging as he was, and imposing as he always has been, this valiant old battler seemed in Baltimore to be still battling shadows others in Israel have long put behind them. No new proposal appeared, no fresh approach to the Palestinians, no creative pattern for the production of peace, none of preserving it. We have heard the Shamir story for years without change; they shall not pass. It is the old era incarnate, and the prime minister himself -- personally moving, philosophically obsolete -- who constitutes a central obstacle, even to more tolerant, more progressive movements in Israel itself.
What Mr. Shamir ignores is that the ground is moving under his feet. The end of the Cold War disarms his most dangerous neighbors, the Syrians. The Gulf War humiliated his nearest neighbors, the Palestinians, foolishly stuck on the wrong side. Conversely, both developments immensely strengthen his American allies, with their freshened interest in Middle East peace and their demonstrated capacity, both militarily and financially, to move Jews as well as Arabs toward rational discourse.
Some favorable signs exist. At least superficially, the Palestinians seem willing. They have a nation to gain or some reasonable facsimile. Israeli conservatives, with land and their treasured neo-Spartan prestige to lose, are understandably more reluctant. But the prime minister and his Likud hard-liners cling to a political island which is visibly shrinking. Polls there show a gathering impulse to make a deal with the Palestinians, then to start restoring the fragile Israeli economy. Laborites have just inserted that in their official platform.
Hard-lining, paradoxically, may prove a negotiating plus. As with the hard-liner Menachem Begin a decade ago, Mr. Shamir seems best armed now to make a deal all Israel could confidently accept. Also physically on hand as outside guarantors of any such deal are American troops as well as agencies of the United Nations. Israel's military security, hitherto painfully vulnerable, seems underwritten at last.
It's easy for outsiders to press such difficult policy changes on Israel, and the Jewish leaders in Baltimore were wise to support the Israelis' right to decide for themselves. Still, some at the convention hall suspected that (a) the opportunity for movement stands ripe but fleetingly and that (b) Yitzhak Shamir, by adroitly reversing his position at the crucial moment in December in Washington, can deliver to his country the creative serenity cruelly denied it since 1948.
Bradford Jacobs is the retired editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.