Yesterday, in Tel Aviv, Michal Shoval was still waiting. She spent most of the day glued to CNN, her gas mask at her side. One room of her apartment remained sealed off in case of chemical attack. She was worried about what could happen to her two dogs. But her mood, like that of most Israelis, was more relaxed. There was a joke going around the city: It'll take three or four minutes for one of Saddam Hussein's missiles to get to Tel Aviv. And another three hours for it to find a parking spot.

Here in Washington, hours before the bombing of Iraq began, her father, the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, sat in his office.

"I was in a bit of a quandary," Zalman Shoval said yesterday afternoon. "Because I knew the war was going to start and I couldn't tell her."

His country, at the request of the Bush administration, agreed not to launch a preemptive strike despite Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz's announcement that yes, absolutely, Israel would be attacked if any military force moved against Iraq. It is the price Israel was prepared to pay to preserve the U.S.-Arab coalition against Iraq. But Israel reserved the right to retaliate if attacked.

Although air strikes appeared to have knocked out Saddam's stationary missiles, no one knew how many mobile missile launchers were still pointed at Tel Aviv.

"The Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust depended on others," said the ambassador. "We are never again going to rely on anyone else."

Last night, the missiles began falling. The irony, of course, is that Israel was supposed to keep a low profile in the gulf crisis. It suited the Americans and it suited the Israelis. Don't let Saddam Hussein turn it into an Israeli-Arab war.

And it suited the new ambassador, who arrived in Washington in October, two months after the crisis began. Shoval's smooth, low-key style provided a reassuring counterpoint to the sometimes intransigent voice of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

But that was before the Geneva peace talks failed. Before Israel prepared to absorb a first strike. Before American Jews began streaming into Israel to help defend it.

So much for the low profile.

Washington has always regarded Israel as a sentimental favorite son, but relations between the two countries have been uncharacteristically strained in the past two years. Secretary of State James Baker is said to have become disillusioned with Shamir after the prime minister rejected a formula for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue that Baker spent months putting together.

While the Persian Gulf crisis brought the United States closer to its old ally, it has also thrust the question of a Palestinian homeland into the spotlight. Now Shoval must walk a tightrope: Protect and preserve the ties between the United States and Israel without compromising his country's position.

"Certain ministers in the government thought that because there were problems ahead ... we needed a senior personality and not necessarily a civil servant," said Shoval, who spent 13 years in the Knesset. "There was a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the American administration preferred somebody whom they perceived was senior enough to talk and report directly to the Israeli decision makers and have influence on both sides."

Israel's ambassadors have traditionally played a central role in Washington. Until very recently, the ambassadors from the surrounding Arab countries were known to few outside Embassy Row and the oil industry. Israeli ambassadors, on the other hand, were closely tied to administration insiders and had considerable influence on Capitol Hill.

But in the current administration, "it's a habit of Bush and Baker to pick up the phone and cut a deal with no middleman," said one Washington-based Israeli journalist. Shoval's predecessor, Moshe Arad, was further plagued by infighting between Shamir and former foreign minister Shimon Peres that virtually reduced him to a press secretary issuing statements from the embassy.

Shoval, as expected, plays down the tensions between Israel and the United States as squabbles between old friends that were quickly set aside when the Iraqis threatened Israel's security. He points to Shamir's meeting with Bush in December, which was widely seen as a significant step in improving the relationship between the two countries.

"Although there are different currents and undercurrents, even American decision makers who are less closely identified with Israel know the underlying reality," said Shoval. "They know that whatever coalition there may be from time to time with America and other countries in the area, these coalitions are based on interests of a certain moment. ... It is something that could change overnight because the regimes in these countries can change overnight."

A real alliance, he said, can exist only between democracies. "The American government knows that and the Israeli government knows that. Neither country has a real alternative to each other in the long term."

A Political Past Shoval comes to his first ambassadorship from the turbulent world of Israeli politics. His appointment was secured last June when his small faction party, the Ometz, threw its support to Shamir's coalition. Shoval and Shamir are said to have a good working relationship, although the new ambassador's views are more moderate than those of the right-wing prime minister.

Shoval is one of the new voices of the Likud -- a wealthy, secular businessman. He describes himself as "comfortable"; but he is rich enough to be needled in the Knesset about his wealth by a member of the Communist Party.

"All our previous ambassadors have either been civil servants, professional diplomats, sometimes ex-generals, one or two professors -- but never somebody who really came from the private sector," he said. "My banking activities give me the possibility to deal with aspects which many professional diplomats are not well versed with. I think this does give me an advantage."

Shoval is accustomed to certain advantages. Born in 1930, Shoval was the only son of a wealthy family of international merchants. He was born in Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland, where his father oversaw the family's international herring business.

In 1938, with Nazism on the rise in Europe, his father moved the family to Palestine. "I often feel as if I was born twice," said Shoval, who was 8 at the time. "Once when I was actually born in Danzig, where I spent the first few years of my life, and once again in Palestine because my life really became meaningful from that moment onward."

The young boy watched as the country struggled to establish the Jewish state and was fascinated by the political process. It was a passion his father, despite the move to Palestine, never shared: "To the last day of his life, he thought politics was not something for good people to be involved with." He agrees -- to a point. "A rational person would run away from politics," Shoval said, smiling. "But you either run away from public activities or you're attracted by them."

Shoval originally planned a diplomatic career and received degrees in international relations from the University of California and the Graduate Institute of International Studies at the University of Geneva. In 1955, he entered the foreign ministry and later switched to international banking.

He became active in the Israel Labor Party in the early '60s, then followed a splinter group formed by David Ben-Gurion in 1965. In his office, there are pictures of himself with Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, the two men most influential in his political development.

He was first elected to the Knesset in 1970 on the independent Rafi ticket. In 1978, Dayan -- then foreign minister -- named Shoval as head of foreign information activities, a position he held through the Camp David conference. Dayan died in 1981; Shoval, then out of office, spent the next seven years back in banking, writing newspapers articles and earning a doctorate with his thesis -- "Possible Solutions for the Future of the Territories: Samaria and Gaza."

Shoval was reelected to the Knesset in 1988, this time on the Likud list, and mentioned for the U.S. ambassadorship shortly after. Although the position has traditionally led to greater political power in Israel, Shoval claims to have tabled ambitions.

"To be the Israeli ambassador in Washington is just about one of the highest and most important and prestigious public positions any person in Israel can hope for," he said. "At this time I'm thinking only of what I'm doing here."

An Issue of Images Shoval is unwilling to characterize this as a make-or-break moment in U.S.-Israeli relations. "Let's not forget that in spite all of the difficulties in actual complete terms, even with the problems, we probably have a closer relationship than we ever had before."

Nonetheless, in the last two years Israel has faced unprecedented criticism from the American public -- even from American Jewish organizations -- on its handling of the Palestinians. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,000 Americans conducted one week after the Temple Mount riot in October found that 51 percent thought that Israel typically responds too harshly to Palestinian protesters.

Shoval blames the media -- the second largest foreign press corps in the world is based in Israel -- especially television.

"People see on their screen Arab youngsters throwing stones and Israeli soldiers with helmets and machine guns -- either shooting or not shooting -- but there anyway," he said. "They never see on television the reasons -- the reasons they could see if they read in depth the newspapers."

Shoval said Saddam has been successful in creating "an unofficial" linkage between Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and the Palestinian issue. "If, God forbid, Saddam Hussein will be seen as having had the upper hand, there's no chance for the peace process because the Palestinian Arabs will be continuously radicalized," said Shoval. "They would say, 'This man won over America. He stood up to the Americans and he won. So why should we be more moderate?' "

Although the U.S. administration has rejected any link between Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and the Palestinians, it has not opposed calls for an international peace conference "at an appropriate time." The Israeli government vehemently opposes the conference on the grounds that it will never receive a fair hearing.

"The Arabs have been very successful over the last few years in creating the false image of a big Israeli superpower unfairly treating the poor little Palestinians," Shoval said. "Whereas the reality, of course, is that we are still less than 4 million Jews facing 140 million Arabs -- none of whom, except for Egypt, have made peace with us. All of whom still threaten us with extinction."

Clear Objectives For the moment, the Israeli Embassy is on "emergency footing." After a sleepless night Wednesday, Shoval spent yesterday talking on closed-circuit TV to groups of Jewish Americans and was interviewed on "Good Morning, Israel."

He spoke by phone to U.S. officials. "We gave each other mutual encouragement," he said. "We watch the American boys like they're our own."

His diplomatic routine is on hold. Until the U.N. deadline expired, Shoval spent his time quietly introducing himself to this country. He and his wife, Kena, hosted their first official dinner last month during the Shamir visit and invited a number of Jewish American leaders from across the country.

Shoval said his first objective as ambassador is already accomplished: not to let the perception of worsening relations between the two countries get the upper hand. Shamir's visit, he said, put things back where they should be.

With Saddam's attack on Israel, everything is uncertain once again. At a news conference late last night, Shoval was thrust in the spotlight, saying he had already spoken to Secretary of State Baker and the White House but refusing to comment on what his country would do next.

"So far the State of Israel has paid the dearest price," he said, "... except {for} Kuwait itself."