THE DISPATCH of two more Patriot anti-missile missile batteries to Israel buys the Israeli government some time in which to demonstrate that, in accepting American appeals not to retaliate against Iraqi missiles, it is not endangering its citizens. This sort of pause is difficult for Israel: it has believed strongly in meeting force with force, and it has been at pains to rely on its own military to protect its people. But now missiles are falling on a frightened civilian population, and Israel's larger obligations to Washington are keeping it from exercising its right of self-defense and are forcing it into military dependence. In the absence of an adequate number of Israelis qualified to use these intricate new weapons, American troops are to operate the two new batteries temporarily. Israel has always insisted it would not ask American soldiers to fight for it, and now the United States is insisting that they do.
Will this delicate American-Israeli transaction serve its purpose of keeping the American-led anti-Iraq coalition intact? There is evidence that the policy of Saddam Hussein in sending missiles indiscriminately against civilians of a nonbelligerent state is increasingly coming to be accepted as the barbarity it is. The Egyptians directly and the Saudis implicitly have acknowledged an Israeli right to retaliate, and even the Syrians now seem to hint that a proportionate Israeli response might be understood. In some Arab, including Palestinian, circles these attacks on Israeli civilians are evidently prompting joy and pride, but that only shows their bankruptcy. The contrast between the determined American effort to avoid civilian casualties and the determined Iraqi effort to inflict them -- Saddam Hussein boasts of turning Tel Aviv into, yes, a "crematorium" -- is becoming the moral fingerprint of the war.
From the start of the crisis, the United States hoped Israel would take up a "low profile." Iraq has forced it into a high profile, but the coalition may be the tougher for the test. Meanwhile, a new pattern of mutual confidence is being woven between the United States and Israel. Not just by the Patriot decision but by the emphasis in its bombing campaign on finding Iraq's missile sites and in other ways, the United States has acted with previously unseen vigor and openness in Israel's defense. On its part, Israel has consented to put a huge part of its security requirements in American hands -- as Saudi Arabia, itself the target of missile attacks yesterday, already has. If this pattern of shared policy can be sustained, it can contribute now to military cooperation and it can contribute later to the diplomacy that will be necessary to make over the Middle East.