JERUSALEM — EVEN as missiles fall on Tel Aviv, Israel is tallying the gains of adversity. ``Jan. 16 was a turning point,'' says Israeli Knesset (parliament) member Uriel Lynn, describing the sudden reversal of Israel's fortunes since the day the Gulf war started.
``One year ago relations with the US were strained; Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that would sooner or later have been directed at Israel; the military threat far exceeded anything we have faced since the establishment of the state,'' Mr. Lynn says. ``Now the situation is changing drastically, because President Bush decided to launch the war against Iraq.''
``Six months ago, if we had asked people to plan a scenario for the Middle East that would best serve the interests of Israel, they could not have conceived anything as good as what is happening today,'' Lynn adds.
The immediate fallout from three Iraqi missile attacks on Israel has been a wave of sympathy that has helped burnish an image tarnished by Israel's 1982 Lebanon war and its sometimes harsh response to the three-year Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials report highly favorable international news coverage since the war began. They say dozens of messages have reached Israel from capitals around the world voicing outrage over the Iraqi attacks and admiration for Israel's restraint under fire.
``It's done a lot of good for Israel's image,'' says Yossi Olmert, head of the Government Press Office. ``There's more positive press than anytime I can remember.''
More consequential will be one almost certain military result of the Gulf war: the destruction of Iraq's chemical, biological, and incipient nuclear weapons capabilities, plus a large part of its conventional forces.
For the first time in its 43-year history Israel is savoring the realistic prospect of a Middle East war ending with the complete elimination of an Arab adversary's ability to fight.
``This is a different war than any war in the Middle East,'' comments Gerald Steinberg, a military analyst at the Security Studies Institute at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. ``Israel has never had the capacity of destroying another Arab country's military structure. We've always had to settle for a cease-fire to go on fighting another day.''
``Iraq is not going to be able to mount any kind of military threat after this war is over,'' continues Dr. Steinberg. ``Even if we suffer more casualties, if the 40-year cycle will be broken by this action, I think the vast majority of the population will be willing to pay the price we're paying.''
On Wednesday, US Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that coalition bombing raids had completely destroyed two Iraqi nuclear reactors and inflicted damage on chemical and biological weapons facilities.
Israel may also profit financially from the Gulf war.
Despite repeated requests from Israel, the United States has been reluctant to help underwrite the costs of absorbing up to 1 million Soviet immigrants expected over the next two years.
But eager to encourage and possibly reward Israel's policy of restraint in the aftermath of Iraqi missile attacks, Washington appears to be in a more generous mood. A request for $13 billion to absorb new immigrants and help defray war costs will be given ``full consideration,'' a State Department spokesman said Wednesday. Congress, always receptive to Israel's needs, is likely to back any supplemental aid request.
In a related development, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was due to arrive in Israel yesterday with a pledge of $165 million in immediate humanitarian aid.
The boost the Gulf war has given to once-strained US-Israeli relations is also evident in increased levels of military cooperation, consultation, and information sharing.
THE most tangible expression of improvement was the rush delivery last weekend by the US of two batteries of Patriot missiles to help Israel defend against Scud missiles launched from Iraq. More symbolic was Tuesday's signing of a ``status of forces'' agreement defining reciprocal privileges for military personnel.
Beyond the symbolic, Israel is hoping for increased military assistance, starting with deliveries of up to $700 million in US military hardware promised to Israel months ago.
``The level of understanding for our needs by the US has improved,'' says a source in Jerusalem, commenting on the sudden warming trend in US-Israeli relations. ``If the substance of relations is largely the same, the tone of the dialogue has completely changed.''
Israelis also express satisfaction over the coincidence of interests between Israel and Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Syria which has been produced by the Gulf crisis.
Most are reluctant to read lasting significance into this development. But various Israeli officials and independent analysts have been heartened that even hard-line Syria has affirmed Israel's right to retaliate against Iraqi missile attacks. They express cautious hopes that after the war a resolution of other regional problems can take place in the context of an overall improvement in Israel's relations with the Arab world.
In one small illustration of the changes wrought by the Gulf war, military spokesman from Saudi Arabia - long a bastion of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment - have recently participated in phone interviews conducted by Israel Radio from Jerusalem.
Many analysts caution that the era of good feelings created by the Gulf crisis will be tested when, after the war, Israel is pressed by the international community to attend an international conference to resolve the Palestinian problem.