Zalman Shoval had good reason to celebrate last night. The first official dinner hosted by the new Israeli ambassador, who has been in this country for only seven weeks, had two things going for it: The party fell on the first night of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, and the guest of honor was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Shamir had just completed a day of what he termed "encouraging and very friendly" talks with President Bush. "In Israel, many people waited for the results of these meetings," he said. "Today, after they heard about the atmosphere and contents of these meetings, they are celebrating the festival of Hanukah with much joy."

Hanukah, he told the guests, "has to do with some sacred principles; it has to do with fighting for principles, and perseverance. In the end, we are celebrating for many generations the victory of these sacred principles and the defeat of evil."

The dinner at the ambassador's Northwest residence capped the first day of what many believe is a crucial three-day visit here by Shamir. Earlier, the prime minister met with Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis. The unofficial agenda was to quell rumors of strained relations between the two countries.

" 'Friendly' isn't even a strong enough word to describe it," Shoval said at a reception before the dinner. "It was extremely warm between the heads of two very, very friendly countries." The underlying relationship, he said, was never in doubt. "Between two good friends, you don't have to reassure yourself every moment that you are friends and allies."

To underscore his point, the guest list included administration heavyweights, diplomats and longtime supporters of Israel, including Cheney, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Sens. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bob Kasten (R-Wis.), Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), and Jewish leaders from across the country.

"It was an important meeting because there has been a failure of the president to meet with the prime minister or to actually have much of a relationship with Israel for some time," said Metzenbaum.

"It sends a clear message to the American people and to the rest of the world -- including Saddam Hussein," he said, "and to the Arabs who hope to turn this situation in the Middle East against Israel."

Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have openly criticized the tough-talking Shamir for his refusal to engage in peace talks with Palestinians. Last night, however, the focus was on the Persian Gulf and cooperation between the two countries to resolve the crisis.

Shamir was toasted by Cheney, Metzenbaum and Yates, prompting Shoval to tease, "The real reason he came was to let the new ambassador meet the right people."

As the guests crowded around the diminutive prime minister, New York Times columnist William Safire surveyed the diplomatic contingent: Shoval, U.S. Ambassador to Israel William Brown, former U.S. ambassador Sam Lewis and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Yoram Aridor.

"The easiest thing -- when you don't know somebody -- is to call him 'ambassador,' " Safire advised. " 'Excellency' always flies. In New York, when you go to a party like this, you always use 'judge.' "

The ambassadors, real and titular, dined on Hanukah latkes and the day's developments, including word that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze will meet with Shamir here today. Formal ties between Israel and the Soviet Union have been broken since the 1967 Mideast war.

"Our relations have become much closer already," said Shoval. "After all, Soviet Jewish immigration is one of the great deeds of the decade and we appreciate that."

Shoval said a statement yesterday by Shevardnadze ruling out a Soviet role in any gulf military operation would not affect the talks with the United States or the Soviets.

Cheney said Shevardnadze's announcement would put no additional pressure on the United States. "I take it at face value," he said. "The Soviets have been very supportive. Their cooperation has clearly made it easier for us to put together the coalition now in place."

But Kemp, speaking "solely for myself," echoed the sentiment of the night.

"We can't rely on the U.N. or the Soviet Union," he said. "We have to rely on the people whom we have historically depended upon -- ourselves and our allies. Israel is an ally. Tonight is a night to celebrate a relationship that is lasting, important and moral."