TEL AVIV -- During the ongoing Gulf crisis, Washington has publicly distanced itself from Israel. But the Israeli government is fed up with taking a Washington-imposed "low profile." As Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai put it during an interview last week, Israel is tired of being treated as "the back-door girl" -- a close friend now kept at a distance so as not to antagonize America's new Arab allies.

In other circumstances, Israel might well be seeking a green light from Washington to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. As things stand, the possibility is real that Israel will go it alone -- come what may. As one senior military offficial recently put it, "We will not be sitting ducks."

By contrast, only five years ago, as the United States plotted to intercept the aircraft carrying the terrorist Abu Abbas from Egypt to Italy, U.S.-Israeli cooperation was so close that messsages and personnel flew back and forth between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, it was nearly a joint operation.

In the initial stages of the Gulf crisis, Israeli officials say they had no problem complying with the "low profile" requested by Washington, understanding it to have political implications only. But many senior political, military and intelligence officials said in interviews here last week that they have come to believe that the "low profile" threatens to undermine their country's security. "It's nice to play the low profile game -- until you are threatened," said a senior Israeli military officer.

If the United States launches a military strike against Iraq, senior Israeli officials say, they expect that Iraq will attack Israel. If Iraq attacks, Israel has informed the United States, "we'll react as we see fit," according to a senior Israeli official. "Not even the smallest Iraqi attack on Israel will pass without immediate reaction," said an Israeli cabinet minister in a matter-of-fact voice.

The Israelis are aware of the risks -- for example, the danger that an Israeli pilot might accidentally shoot down a U.S. plane in the midst of retaliating against Iraq. "I don't want to have an air fight with an American F-16," says one senior Israeli military official.

To avoid confrontations of this sort, Israeli officials say they must have coordinated operational planning with Washington -- secret joint contingency planning. They say they also need "real-time intelligence," which means instant access to U.S. raw intelligence, such as satellite transmissions.

U.S. intelligence on Iraq is especially important to Israel at this moment because the United States has asked Israel to cut back its own intelligence-gathering activities against Iraq, according to a senior Israeli diplomat. And Israel has acquiesced in the request. For example, the United States has asked Israel to limit its aerial reconnaissance of Iraq. Washington is concerned that Israeli planes flying over Iraq might provoke a reaction; Israel has refrained. But "we expect the United States to give us {the} intelligence," said a senior Israeli official.

The United States, however, has rejected Israel's request for coordinated operational planning and for real-time intelligence. A senior U.S. official explains Washington's position: "They'd like a level of coordination that is more than is required."

Needless to say, this doesn't sit well in Jerusalem. One senior Israeli military official hints that Washington's rejection of the Israeli request might lead Israel to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq -- something the United States has explicitly asked Israel not to do. "If we don't receive the intelligence and coordination we require," said this high-ranking military officer, "we might act according to our interests, trying to take into account American interests, but failing."

Another senior Israeli military officer spoke even more bluntly: "It is better to preempt than to wait for a missile to fall. We have the right to attack if we are sure he {Saddam} is going to."

This officer questioned the immediacy of U.S. concern with two missile bases located in western Iraq that threaten Israel: "I have doubts, not that Washington doesn't mean well, but that this is their first priority." At least one other Israeli military officer indicated concern that Washington's primary targets will be communications, electricity and oil installations -- not missiles aimed at Tel Aviv.

Real-time intelligence would allow Jerusalem to know immediately if Saddam Hussein is preparing to fire Scud-B missiles at Israel. According to the calculations of Israeli planners, approximately six to eight hours would elapse from the time the missiles are put on the launching pad until they are fully operational. But, at present, there is a 12- to 16-hour gap between the time the United States receives the raw intelligence and the moment it passes a summary along to the Israelis, explained an insider here.

This kind of delay, by reducing Israel's ability to head off an imminent threat, increases the danger to Israel. The uncertainty might also tempt Israel to launch a preemptive strike on its own terms. Israeli government officials point out that this kind of delay puts Israel in danger and, as one put it, reduces Israel's ability to launch a preventive strike. Still, Defense Minister Moshe Arens continues to insist, "We are not considering preempting."

The tensions that exist between the United States and Israel over the crisis in the Gulf are only a fragment of a larger schism in the longstanding U.S.-Israeli "special relationship." Indeed, many experts believe that under the Bush administration, U.S.-Israeli relations have reached an all-time low.

How did the relationship reach its present cool status? The reasons include the failure to make progress on the Palestinian question and the intifada, or uprising, which appears to be escalating to new level of hostility. More recently, there was the violence on the Temple Mount, with the subsequent refusal by Israel to allow a U.N. team to investigate the episode. And Israel is one country that has not strategically benefited from the crumbling of the Soviet empire. (Israel has, of course, welcomed thousands of Soviet Jews.) The basis of U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation was deterrence of potential Soviet aggression.

The most visible sign of the decay in the relationship is the poor personal rapport between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Bush. The two leaders have met twice, and the encounters are described by Israeli officials as "acrimonious."

The first meeting between Shamir and Bush occurred in April of last year. The president and the prime minister spent five to 10 minutes alone. During those few minutes, Bush, according to Israeli and U.S. sources, asked Shamir to desist from building new settlements. According to a U.S. source, "the president believed he had a commitment there would be no more settlements." But Shamir said in an interview, "I never promised, I couldn't. I've never given such a pledge. Everybody knows my views about the borders of Israel."

After that meeting, according to a senior U.S. diplomat, the Bush administration learned that a preexisting settlement was being moved and expanded and that there was other settlement activity. An angry Bush reportedly felt he had been misled. "The president hoped we'd see a hold on significant settlement activity," explained the diplomat.

Shamir, on the other hand, said last week that there is little settlement activity on the West Bank and in Gaza. The misunderstanding with the United States may have arisen, he said, because the Israeli government does not consider building in East Jerusalem to be settlement activity. (The same confusion apparently led to a subsequent and altogether hostile telephone conversation between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president, according to a source close to Shamir.)

The second Bush-Shamir meeting took place exactly a year ago. Shamir had notified the United States that he was coming to America, but the Bush administration let weeks go by before sending word, at the last moment, that the president would again receive the Israeli prime minister.

Once again Bush and Shamir first met in a small private circumstance -- this time each leader was accompanied by one aide. According to Israeli sources, Bush was very angry. "He seemed to have an obsession with regard to settlements," remarked an Israeli official. "He gave us hell."

In the private meeting, according to Israeli sources, the president reprimanded the Israeli prime minister for his reluctance to go ahead with the peace plan, for the settlement activity and for kidnapping Lebanese terror chieftain Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid in July 1989. The president, according to Israeli sources, was particularly angry that the operation was done without Israel notifying the United States. Bush, moreover, accused Israeli intelligence of knowing that Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, a U.S. officer held hostage by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, was dead, yet failing to notify the United States.

Israeli officials say this charge is entirely false. They passed immediately any information they had on Higgins to the United States, they say.

After the private meeting, the president added insult to injury by repeating his lecture to Shamir in the Cabinet Room in front of American officials, according to an Israeli source who was present.

Then, this past March, came the breakdown of the peace process. Moshe Arens, then minister of foreign affairs, led Secretary of State James Baker to believe that the Israeli government would compromise on the final hurdle to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and agree that a Palestinian negotiating team could include one Palestinian from East Jerusalem and one deported former resident. But Shamir vetoed the Arens compromise. Labor Party opposition leader Shimon Peres, on the other hand, endorsed the scheme, leading to the collapse of the "National Unity" government.

Bush escalated the growing tensions with Israel in March 1990 when he said there should be no new settlements in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem. Hitherto, East Jerusalem had been a taboo subject: Jerusalem's status as Israel's united capital is deemed non-negotiable by both mainstream Israeli parties, and even by the staunchest Israeli doves.

The latest U.S.-Israeli dispute pertains to the Temple Mount incident -- 21 Palestinians were killed by Israeli police after they attacked Jewish worshippers with rocks. Shamir turned down without discussion a U.S. request to admit the U.N. commission, according to a senior U.S. official. Shamir observes that "our past with the U.N. is not a very sympathetic one."

There are further U.S.-Israeli tensions over large U.S. arms sales to Arab countries, such as the Bush administration plan to sell Saudi Arabia a multi-billion-dollar billion arms package. According to senior Israeli officials, these arms sales have eroded Israel's qualitative edge that America promised to maintain.

In the last analysis, Israelis believe it is essential that the United States use force to overthrow Saddam Hussein and destroy his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. The intifada and terror are not a major security threat to Israel, observed one leading Israeli politician. The same cannot be said of Saddam and the nuclear facilities he is fast trying to build.

What's the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship? Israeli officials aren't encouraged by reading Bush's statements in Helsinki and at the United Nations -- but his words seemed to many to suggest a linkage between Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the Arab-Israeli dispute. They see a new U.S. policy evolving, one in which -- together with the Soviets -- Washington endeavors to impose a settlement on Israel. Officials here believe that Israel's hope rests either with Congress -- so far supportive of Israel -- or with a new and friendlier administration.

Lally Weymouth writes regularly about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.