TEL AVIV

A picture can be worth a thousand strategy papers. While David Ivry was Israel's ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2002, he displayed in his office a large aerial photograph of the wreckage of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israel had bombed in 1981 when Ivry commanded the Israeli air force.

At the time of the raid, the Reagan administration, then supporting Saddam Hussein, condemned the Israeli preemptive attack. But after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Dick Cheney, then defense secretary, sent this photograph to Ivry and wrote on it: "For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 -- which made our job much easier in Desert Storm."

This week, a senior Israeli delegation will travel to Washington for a periodic "strategic dialogue." The "day after Iraq" scenarios will top the agenda. For the Israelis, it will be another moment of sweet vindication, because the "day before" is not a matter of dispute between Washington and Jerusalem. The Bush administration has embraced Israel's broader strategic approach of preemption. The administration has shown a willingness to hunt down terrorists, attack nascent programs to develop weapons of mass destruction in other countries, and even invade nations to change their governments and deny safe havens to terrorists and other enemies, much as Israel has done for over 50 years.

While an overt policy of preemptive action might be new to Americans, it has been a staple of Israeli defense policy for decades. Since 1951, Israeli military planners have advocated a "first-strike" strategy against imminent threats. In October 1956, under the strain of terror attacks and futile reprisals, Israel launched a "preemptive war" against Egypt, Israel's main adversary at the time, to prevent the use of Czech arms that Cairo had acquired with Soviet help. Regime change was even part of the package: Israel, along with its momentary allies Britain and France (who helped by seizing the newly nationalized Suez Canal), hoped to get rid of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalist regime as part of the package.

Though American opposition forced Israel's withdrawal and Nasser remained, the lesson of preemption was not lost on Israelis, especially not on Ariel Sharon, who had commanded the first unit to enter the Sinai. In later years, Israel resorted to preemption several times. The Six Day War of 1967 was a preemptive strike against massive Arab military mobilization, an obvious threat rather than a presumed one, and it changed the political balance and borders. While he was defense minister, Sharon applied the doctrine by invading Lebanon in 1982, ousting Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut and enthroning, at least briefly, a loyalist regime there.

The Bush administration has adopted the Israeli approach in its war on terrorism. For the president himself, the Sept. 11 attacks made preemption a top priority. For Cheney and the conservative Pentagon intellectuals, the convergence has been long in coming. Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, was dispatched by Cheney to Israel during the Persian Gulf War. The Pentagon's number three, Douglas J. Feith, is a former right-wing Jewish activist who opposed the Oslo peace accord. Richard Perle, a key adviser, is close to the Israeli establishment.

In a recent article about the lessons of Osirak, Sharon's cabinet secretary, Gideon Sa'ar, wrote, "The same approach that led the Begin government in 1981, belongs now to the Bush administration." Sa'ar said the White House's recent national security strategy document showed the acceptance of Israel's long-held policy of "initiative, offensive and preventive steps."

The prospect of an American attack on Iraq has produced a rare consensus in Israel, even amid a divisive election campaign. Sharon, Israeli leaders from both camps, and the security establishment have backed the Bush administration's war plans, and urged the United States to act without delay.

In some ways, this is surprising. True, Saddam Hussein is one of the Jewish state's staunchest enemies. His Scud missiles hit Tel Aviv and Haifa during the 1991 Gulf War, piercing Israel's shield of invincibility and denting its ability to deter. And Hussein's nuclear ambitions have threatened Israel's atomic monopoly in the region. In recent years, however, the Israeli establishment has been content to let U.N. sanctions and U.S. and British air attacks keep the Iraqi threat in check. Successive prime ministers (with the notable dissent of Sharon) and military leaders have portrayed Iran as the more dangerous menace. At a security cabinet meeting last week, intelligence chiefs said that Iraq "poses no existential threat" to Israel. So why should Israel rush to support a war, that might expose it to biological or chemical attack? Two plausible reasons: political expediency and strategic vindication.

Facing a stalemated war of attrition with the Palestinians, a crumbling economy and a political crisis at home, the Israeli establishment is craving a deus ex machina to save the country and put it back on a positive strategic and financial path. An American victory over Saddam Hussein would alter the regional environment and position the United States, Israel's main ally, as the chief arbiter in the Middle East.

Some right-wing politicians like Foreign Minister (and former prime minister) Binyamin Netanyahu and cabinet member Natan Sharansky share a personal and ideological affinity with Republican conservatives in Washington. Both have argued for years that Arab democracy is the best guarantor of peace. According to this school of thought, turning Iraq into a model Arab state, run by a pro-Western regime protected by American bayonets, serves Israel's best interests. It would create a positive domino effect, as autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East would have to fight for their survival, and thus have less energy to confront Israel.

This view is widely held at the Qirya, Israel's Pentagon in Tel Aviv. Frustrated by their failure to crush the Palestinian intifada, military leaders pin their hopes on an Iraqi war. The chief of staff, Gen. Moshe ("Bogy") Ya'alon, said last week that a successful American attack in Iraq would force a Palestinian "decision" on a post-Arafat leadership drawn "from the ranks of those who understand that terror and violence will not bring them achievements." The Israel Defense Forces chief intelligence analyst, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, told the security cabinet that "this is a clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam, and Israel is in the front line.

Israeli military strategists believe that after the fall of Hussein, Israel's other main adversaries, Iran and Syria, would reconsider their support for terrorism, stop arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and abandon their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Sharon has already called on the United States to target Iran after Baghdad.

From the left-wing perspective, the main advantage of a war would be the resumption of the defunct peace process. Many Israeli officials believe that after taking Baghdad, the United States would try harder to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even revive the Syrian track. "After Iraq, the United States would not want to paralyze its relations with the Arabs," outgoing foreign minister Shimon Peres says. The logic is simple. If America wins easily, it will need to calm anti-American feelings in the Arab street. If Iraq becomes a second Vietnam, the United States will need Arab support. In both cases, the compensation that Washington's Saudi and Egyptian allies will demand will be pushing Israel out of the occupied territories. The blueprint is already there, in the form of the "road map" that Bush has already laid out for Palestinian statehood and a final-status agreement by 2005.

Most politicians, senior officials and military analysts in Israel anticipate a "day-after" peace process along these lines. They recall how the elder Bush forced Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government into the peace process following the Gulf War. A minority opinion, held by foreign ministry officials, holds that after Iraq, the younger Bush will turn to his reelection in 2004. To avoid alienating American Jews and their Christian right allies, the president will refrain from pressuring Israel to compromise. History supports this line. After all, George W.'s father turned against Israel and lost the election.

But the "day after" is still far ahead. First, Israel must endure another fiercely contested election in late January following the collapse of Sharon's coalition last week. The aftermath of war with Iraq would be the next government's business. In the meantime, U.S. war preparations continue, with help from Israel. American forces have received training here in urban fighting, and a senior U.S. military liaison officer visited last week.

Israelis have occasionally had doubts over preemption and regime change. The Lebanon debacle ignited a debate over "wars of choice," similar to the post-Vietnam introspection in the United States. Retired Gen. Israel Tal, the builder of Israel's armored corps and perhaps its most prominent defense theoretician, has long recognized the limits of Israel's power and never advocated regime change in neighboring countries.

Yet after the Persian Gulf War, Tal reconsidered, and supported action against rogue states. "It's important to perfect and institutionalize this model of international intervention to prevent threats to world peace," he wrote in a 1996 book. "Global democratization, if realized, could have an important implication for the general world security, as well as the national security."

Tal warned, though, that "you can enforce a democratic constitution by external force, but it's difficult to forge democratic values -- this could only be the outcome of a long process." He said that while the need for a first-strike war in the face of an imminent threat is indisputable, "preemptive war is debatable, since you have a choice."

Last week, the United States wasn't dwelling on the limits of power; it was testing them. Adopting another Israeli counterterrorism method, U.S. forces assassinated suspected al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, copying a controversial tactic widely used by Israel against the Palestinians, and previously condemned by Washington.

But as it follows Israel's model, the United States should remember that despite many stunning battlefield victories, Israel's acts of preemption have, at best, bought it periods of relative quiet. At worst, they have deepened conflicts. The Six Day War brought occupation. The Lebanon invasion turned into an 18-year quagmire. Only the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, a more limited venture, remains an untarnished success. The Israeli experience should instill caution as much as inspiration.

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.