AS the threat of United Nations sanctions against Israel looms in the case of the Palestinian expellees, President Clinton's new administration is proving a loyal and helpful ally in warding off danger, Israeli officials here say.
Not only are United States diplomats working behind the scenes to delay a UN Security Council vote on sanctions; the new US foreign policy team is listening to Israel on the broader question of the Middle East peace process, judging by signals from Washington.
Less than a week into the new US administration's term, Israelis' fears that Mr. Clinton would not care enough about them have been calmed. US moves at the United Nations, phone calls to Israeli leaders, and Clinton's choices for top Middle East policy jobs have found a warm welcome in Jerusalem.
"Israel's expectations are that the Middle East conflict will be very high on the American agenda ... and we believe that American involvement is vital to the negotiations," says Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin.
"Clinton's actions so far do demonstrate a readiness to be involved, and an understanding that it is needed," he adds.
Despite the new US president's intentions of giving domestic issues top priority, he found himself forced to focus on the Middle East as soon as he was inaugurated, by both US military strikes against Iraq and the fate of more than 400 radical Islamist Palestinians Israel expelled last month. UN pressure
The UN Security Council is expected to meet to consider a report from Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the UN's failed efforts to win the expellees' return to Israel. US diplomats have so far persuaded the Security Council to delay its meeting, and Israeli officials say they have been assured that Washington will continue to play for time.
As far as any vote on sanctions goes, "the later the better," says a senior official close to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Delay in UN action would both give the Israeli Supreme Court time to rule on the legality of the expulsions - possibly reversing them - and to give Mr. Rabin more breathing space to find a political solution to the crisis.
If a vote on sanctions against Israel ever is held, another official says, "there is a feeling of pretty high confidence here that there will be a veto by the United States."
The Clinton administration is eager for a resolution of the expulsion crisis, not least because the Palestinian delegation has refused to resume US-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel until the expellees are taken home.
In the meantime, the problem has blocked Rabin's path to Washington. Having said publicly that he hoped to visit Clinton this month, the Israeli prime minister has been asked to postpone his trip until late March. Diplomats say Clinton appears unwilling to meet Rabin while the expellees' future remains unresolved.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, however, is expected here with-in the next three weeks, Israeli officials say, for a visit that would signal Washington's continued commitment to the Middle East peace talks.
"Whether we like it or not, without American help there will not be peace in the Middle East," says Mr. Beilin. "Just formal direct negotiations [between Israel and the Arabs] are not enough to conclude an agreement."
Such US involvement has warmed Israeli policymakers, who are also encouraged by the impressions Clinton has given with his appointments. Key players stay on
By keeping on the key players from former Secretary of State James Baker III's Middle East peace team - such as Dennis Ross, a former policy planner,and Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian - the new US president "has signaled that the peace process is not going to take a back seat," an official here says.
At the same time, Israeli officials do not hide their satisfaction at the nominations of two new policymakers: former US Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, and Martin Indyck, once a lobbyist with the pro-Israel American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, as the new head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.
"We are happy with the whole team, and Lewis and Indyck are certainly welcome additions in terms of their attitude to Israel," the official says.
Though US Jewish leaders had voiced reservations about the appointment of two Carter administration officials to high office under Clinton - Mr. Christopher as secretary of state and Anthony Lake as National Security adviser - the Israeli government does not share the concern.
Jimmy Carter is not remembered here as the friendliest of US presidents, yet "there is a recognition that only Carter and Bush made tangible contributions to Israel's peace process," says David Clayman, local director of the American Jewish Congress.