It's hard to imagine Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in white tie and tails, but the man has adopted the basic technique of a stage magician: divert the audience's attention. Thus, while the world focused on the Persian Gulf war and admired Israel's restraint, Shamir welcomed into his governing coalition a political party whose platform calls for the expulsion of all Arabs from the West Bank. If this is magic, it's of the blackest kind.

The Moledet Party gives Shamir's Likud bloc a firm 66 votes in the 120-seat parliament. But it also gives us a way of measuring the character of the Likud bloc, not to mention Shamir himself. Despite some well-publicized second thoughts -- and reportedly with several key ministers voting no -- the governing Israeli coalition now includes a political party that many Israelis consider downright racist.

"Racist" may be an unfair term. As best I can determine, the Moledet's founder, retired Gen. Rehavin Zeevi, does not argue that Arabs are racially inferior to Jews -- merely that the two cannot coexist within the same state. Nevertheless, Zeevi (ironically called Gandhi, because he's as thin as the late Indian pacifist) is an extremist who has been invited into the very center of the Israeli political establishment. He has become a member of the so-called security cabinet, a kind of Israeli national security council.

The consequences are entirely predictable. A man who is anathema to all but a few Israelis (Moledet polled about 2 percent of the vote in the last elections) will be able to assert himself as a government spokesman. Although no admirer of the media, he is nevertheless adept at using it. Get used to that gaunt face: Zeevi will increasingly be seen on the tube.

Whatever Shamir's reasons for inviting Moledet into his governing coalition, he has done so smoothly. Israelis themselves are ill-disposed at the moment to make much of a fuss about the appointment. The country is in an odd state of half-war. With Shamir in effect saying, "Look, look at the enemy," he slipped Zeevi out of his sleeve -- not a pigeon, but a hawk.

What has worked in blunting Israeli outrage has worked also for American Jews. From them has come not a peep of criticism. Likewise distracted by the war and not inclined to be critical of Israel when it is being attacked by Iraq, the American Jewish community has apparently decided to hold its fire. But when it chooses to make its views known, it might well be too late.

It could be Moledet was asked to join the ruling coalition solely for domestic political reasons. By broadening his coalition to 66 out of the parliament's 120 seats, Shamir leaves himself less beholden to the small religious parties that can bolt at any minute. Also, he co-opts Moledet itself and acknowledges the growing sentiment in Israel to deal drastically with the Palestinians.

But whatever Shamir's domestic reasons, he must recognize that the appointment of Zeevi sends a clear message to both the Arab world and the United States: Jerusalem remains as implacably opposed to trading land (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) for peace as ever. If anything, the war seems to have solidified that sentiment. The inner cabinet now has a man who not only wants to retain the West Bank but wants it free of Arabs. Never mind that he asks for a voluntary Palestinian exodus. Make things tough enough on people, and they will almost certainly volunteer to leave.

More and more, Israel is reaping the consequences of its occupation of the West Bank and its repression of 750,000 Palestinians. Little by little, that occupation is forcing Israel to adopt measures that few envisioned when the Jewish state was created. Modeled after European parliamentary democracies, animated by humanistic Judaism and acquainted with oppression almost beyond description, Israel has nevertheless resorted to methods that seem to contradict the very ethic of the state. Just recently, for instance, the government arrested a prominent Palestinian leader, Sari Nusseibeh, on charges of spying for Iraq -- and sentenced him without trial. It's hard not to conclude that Nusseibeh was merely being silenced.

Now Israel has welcomed into the government a man who even Likud hard-liners find objectionable. The same sort of action -- the inclusion of a neo-Nazi in the German government, for instance -- would have produced a din of objection. But Yitzhak Shamir knew that the world was looking toward the Gulf and that a beholden American government (not to mention American Jewish leaders) would say nothing. It turns out that the first victim of war is not truth. It's principle.