President Reagan's support for Israel's air raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia on Tuesday surprised and pleased Israeli officials. ``Could you believe it?'' one delighted senior official asked.
The President told reporters in Washington that the bombing of PLO headquarters was ``a legitimate act of self-defense.''
``I've always had faith in Israeli intelligence,'' the President said.
[On Wednesday, the Reagan administration sharpened its response to the attack, calling it understandable but deplorable and contrary to United States objectives of a peaceful Middle East.]
The President's vote of confidence Tuesday convinced Israeli officials that Israel will be able to ride out the storm of international condemnation provoked by the attack on an Arab state that is considered moderate and pro-Western.
As Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said in New York after the raid, ``. . . This will be a passing affair. We have grown accustomed to UN condemnations.''
Domestically, the daring raid did much to bolster the image of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who have been criticized recently for not doing enough to protect Israelis from Palestinian attacks inside and outside Israel. ``The reaction on the street, the people's reaction, was very positive,'' one Jerusalem official said. ``The people loved it.''
Israeli pilots flew some 1,200 miles to level a complex of PLO buildings just south of the Tunisian capital, killing more than 60 people and injuring twice that number in a target area encompassing about 700 square yards, according to the head of Israel's Air Force. The government then announced that the raid had been carried out in retaliation for recent Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
The European Community and the Arab world condemned the strike. Tunisia asked for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the issue. Egypt labeled the raid a ``criminal act'' and canceled talks on a border dispute with Israel.
Assessments of the political damage done by the raid began here before the rubble was cleared. Israeli and Western analysts say any damage done to the peace process is probably temporary and can be repaired.
[At the UN yesterday, Mr. Shamir appealed to Jordan's King Hussein to enter direct negotiations with Israel aimed at achieving a peace treaty between them.]
One Israeli official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said Israel's greatest concern now was Egypt's reaction. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak canceled a planned trip to Cairo by an Israeli delegation that was to discuss the Taba border dispute.
For months, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has ranked the solution of the border dispute high on his list of priorities. Last month, Mr. Peres appeared ready to break up the ``national unity'' government if the hard-line Likud half of his Cabinet did not allow the border dispute to be resolved.
``It's not clear yet the extent of the Egyptian reaction,'' the official said. ``But I think the American response will help [to limit Egyptian anger].''
One Western diplomat predicted that Egypt will suspend the talks only for a few weeks. That view was echoed by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who testified before the Israeli parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday about the raid.
Most committee members, as well as Labor and Likud leaders, expressed support for the raid. Only the far left of the Israeli political spectrum has condemned it, although some independent Israeli newspapers expressed reservations in editorials Wednesday.
A question already being raised is what price the American government will exact for its support now.
``You can bet that some bureaucrat in Washington now has it in the back of his mind that Peres owes the President one,'' said one Western diplomat. ``The most likely place to cut from the flesh is in the peace process.''
Far from ending the peace process or the PLO's role in it, an Israeli analyst who is an expert in PLO strategy said, the raid may have accelerated the process and enhanced the PLO's political position.
The immediate European response was to invite a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to Luxembourg, the analyst said. ``The Europeans now will be more convinced than ever that a solution must be found in the Middle East.''
``Rabin, I think, calculated that he could wipe out the upper echelons of the PLO in this raid,'' said the Israeli PLO analyst. ``That didn't happen. The lesson of Beirut still holds: You can destroy command posts, but you can't destroy the commanders of the PLO.''
Peres plans to leave for the US in two weeks, and his trip has now taken on added importance. Both Hussein and Mubarak will have visited Washington to present their case for negotiations, and the burden will fall on Peres to show flexibility, some analysts here say.
The Americans can be expected to push Peres soon to make concessions either on the format of peace talks or on the participants, one knowledgable Western source says. Israel has adamantly refused to consider the PLO as a negotiating partner and has rejected the notion of an international conference -- two ingredients the Jordanians say are essential to a negotiated settlement.