Israel Wins Points for Restraint After Iraqi Missile Attacks

FOR Ruti, the Gulf war has come perilously close to home. The 21-year-old mother of one was listening to the radio early Thursday when the mournful wail of air raid sirens suddenly shattered the night silence. Just as she opened her front door to investigate, she saw an Iraqi missile slam into a neighbor's house.

``It was a huge red light exploding,'' she recounted the next day, pointing to the now-vacant lot where two houses once stood and to the shattered glass, crumpled cars, and twisted railings that litter this lower class neighborhood on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Despite such scenes of destruction, wrought by Iraqi missile attacks on Friday and Saturday, six days of siege have paid unexpected dividends for the Jewish state.

Strongly criticized for its suppression of the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel has suddenly won the admiration of the world for its poise and restraint under fire.

``Suddenly it's become plucky little Israel again,'' quips a Western journalist in Jerusalem, referring to Israel's one-time image as a scrappy David in a world of menacing Arab Goliaths.

The assault on Israel has also transformed relations with Washington.

Ties between Israel and the Bush administration had been frayed because of deep disagreements over Jewish settlement in the West Bank and ways to advance the Middle East peace process. But following the Iraqi attacks, Washington has rushed to provide moral and military support to its beleaguered ally.

The United States dispatched two batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Israel on Saturday to defend against oncoming Scuds. It is the biggest airlift of military supplies to Israel since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The accompanying team of military advisers are the first to participate directly in the defense of Israel.

The US also announced that it was sending the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal to the eastern Mediterranean, off Israel's coast. Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger arrived in Israel Sunday to coordinate policy. The visit is partly a symbolic show of support, but it is also designed to enhance strategic cooperation between the US and Israel.

Washington's sudden interest in Israel is not entirely disinterested. The Bush administration is concerned that if Israel retaliates the anti-Iraq coalition will be weakened. To give Israel breathing room, the coalition air forces have intensified efforts to locate and destroy Scud missile launchers in western Iraq.

Israeli officials continue to insist on their right to strike back at Iraq but have agreed to be patient to keep the coalition intact.

Israeli officials believe the US is prepared to bid high for continued Israeli forbearance.

``We are accumulating points now,'' says a Israeli official, who was quoted in news reports here.

Israel could call in its chips by convincing the US to scale back or cancel a projected $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia or to increase aid to help Israel absorb the wave of Soviet immigrants arriving in Israel.

More worrisome to Palestinians is the possibility that the US may ease pressure on Israel to agree to an international conference to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian dispute after the Gulf crisis.

A Finance Ministry source says Israel will also ask Washington for grants, loans, or debt forgiveness to compensate for the costs of the Gulf war, including lost tourism, increased defense costs, and lost business opportunities.

Just how long Israel will forebear will depend on whether and how Iraq strikes next, Israeli officials say.

Although Israeli military spokesmen decline to comment on Iraq's offensive capabilities, independent analysts say that many or most of Iraq's estimated 50 mobile launchers are still operational.

Just why no Patriot defenses were in place before the war started is a disputed matter. Western sources say Israel underestimated the missile threat from Iraq, while fearing that Patriot deliveries could slow up development of the Arrow, its own anti-missile missile.

Israeli officials blame the US for delaying delivery of two Patriot batteries ordered last August. The batteries arrived several weeks ago, but Israeli crews have not been fully trained to use them. The two new batteries airlifted to Israel Saturday along with US crews were made operational within hours.

US forces used Patriots to destroy nine Scuds aimed at Saudi Arabia on Sunday. But Israelis say that, even with the new Patriot batteries, Israel will not have an airtight missile defense.

``Maybe you can get a net effect that comes closer to zero, but it will not be leak-proof,'' says Israeli defense analyst Dore Gold. ``It is very, very hard to ever assuredly remove the threat to Israel of these Iraqi ballistic missiles, unless Iraqi territory is actually occupied - which is not in the cards.''

The minimal damage caused by the two missile attacks thus far is attributed party to luck and partly to the downsizing of payloads required to extend the range of the Scuds to reach Israel.

If Israelis are killed in new missile attacks, retaliation will be almost inevitable, Israeli sources agree.

Baghdad Radio has warned of additional attacks on Israel. Israeli officials are concerned that Iraq might yet attempt to penetrate Israeli airspace with chemical-tipped Scuds or bombers carrying chemical weapons.

``The fact that they haven't used chemical warheads doesn't mean that they don't have them,'' Israeli military spokesman Nachman Shai said Saturday.

Military censors have barred reporters from disclosing the location of missile landings. Such information could enable Iraq to fine-tune guidance systems to increase the chances of hitting such prime targets as Israel's Defense Ministry, located in Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem apparently has not been targeted, presumably because it contains a sizeable Arab population and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, one of Islam's holiest sites.

Undulating air-raid sirens have sounded six times since Thursday, sending residents scurrying into rooms sealed to keep out poison gas. Twenty-eight Israelis have been wounded by at least 11 Iraqi missiles.

At this writing, schools have remained closed, but in the southern part of the country workplaces have reopened. Virtually all who venture outside carry brown boxes containing gas masks and syringes, to be used in case of a nerve-gas attack.

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