Despite his historic role as peacemaker between Israel and Egypt, President carter's political stock in the Jewish state has fallen to the point where senior officials privately admit to hoping he will be defeated in November.
Since independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson is perceived as a potential drain on the Carter vote, the Illinois congressman's four-day campaign visit to Israel was treated here as a top-priority event.
One Cabinet member unwittingly let the cat out of the bag when, after wondering out loud if Representative Anderson could actually win the presidency, he was told that he could certainly swing the election to Ronald Reagan. "Then he is important," the minister said.
The minister's rather murky view of the United States electoral system was typical of most Israelis. Prevailing disappointment with this country's proportional representation system, and its consequent multiplicity of political parties in the Knesset (parliament), tends to make the US presidential model all the more attractive.
Many factors contribute to the anti-Carter mood. Among them:
* Alleged failure to muster US military power effectively against forces that undermine Western interests.
* A belief that the US should not be tolerating the protracted detention of 53 diplomats as hostages in Iran and that the rescue attempt mounted on their behalf was ill-conceived and poorly executed.
* A suspected tendency to lean on Israel for more concessions that the average citizen thinks should be expected when the issues involved relate to national security.
* The performance of US envoys to the United Nations, whose abstentions in anti-Israel resolutions are regarded as blatant violations of political commitments said to have been made in conjunction with the Camp David accords two years ago.
In essence, President Carter generally is dismissed in Israel as a weak and indecisive statesman, unfitted for his role as leader of the free world.
There is an undercurrent of admiration for Sen. Edward Kennedy, mainly due to his image as a persistent and undaunted underdog. But deep down, many Israelis fear that liberal Democrats are apt to put too much trust in Arab assurances of good intentions and too little emphasis on the ulterior motives affecting this region: namely, a long-range strategy designed to overpower Israel.
Ex-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin set the tone recently when he warned that relations between the US and Israel will become "more difficult and more complicated" if President Carter is returned to the White House for a second term.
But man-in-the street opinion here varies, some Israelis betraying the traditional Jewish assumption that "the reigning czar is always preferable to his successor," if only because the former's conduct is known while the latter's is not.
A Tel Aviv import-export dealer, Shalom Lax, deviated from this stance, however, contending that he cannot distinguish among Mr. Carter, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Reagan. "I don't know which of them is best," he said.
Shalom Lax considers the US election "serious and important," noting that the outcome may affect not only Israel, but also the entire world.
Zvi Goldstein, a Tel Aviv barber, took an opposite view. "I would rather see President Carter stay in office," he said. "He is the safest candidate. The others are unknowns."
Zehava ben-Shai, a suburban housewife, thought Mr. Carter should be re-elected "even though he did not excel as President." She, too, had no clear impression of his rivals. A note of sentiment crept into her remarks, though, when she added:
"I wish Ted Kennedy were still in the picture."
There is a basic inclination here to overestimate the importance of the so-called Jewish vote in the US -- at least to the extent of believing that American Jews are influenced by all the nuances and subtleties of the government-to-government relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
In a sense, the Israeli media and local politicians have fostered a distorted image of the American-Jewish community, leading the public here to believe it is as Israel-centered as are the citizens of this country.
This impression was undoubtedly reenforced by Mr. Anderson having made Israel the first stop on his overseas campaign tour.
To put it in pictorial terms, as did "Moshik," the daily Davar's twinkle-eyed cartoonist: Mr. Anderson is depicted as Aesop's fox, Israel as the raven, and the American-Jewish vote as as the piece of cheese. Presumably, if the fox can get the raven to sing in his favor, the cheese will drop right into his mouth.
Oh, if it were only that simple.