LOD, ISRAEL, OCT. 15 -- For 17 years, Ida Nudel dreamed of Israel, a place shehad never seen. She goaded the Soviet Union by publicly demanding the right to leave, and the government responded by sentencing her to four years' exile in Siberia. When she tried to return to Moscow afterward, she was denied residence, hounded by KGB agents and forced to wander homeless for months.
Her search ended tonight. To a cheering crowd of dignitaries, celebrities and well-wishers, the frail woman who has been described as the heart and soul of the Jewish emigration movement in the Soviet Union arrived in the homeland of her dreams.
"For me it is the moment of my life," she told a throng of reporters at Ben-Gurion Airport. "I am home . . . . Some hours ago I was almost a slave in Moscow. Now I am a free person in my own country, amongst my own people."
She arrived direct from Moscow on the private Boeing 727 of American Jewish billionaire Armand Hammer, a longtime friend of the Soviet Union who personally appealed to the Russian leadership for her release. It came on the eve of Secretary of State George P. Shultz's trip to Moscow and is considered to be a gesture of conciliation before that visit.
But her arrival here was also a personal triumph for a woman whose tenacity made her the guardian angel and abiding symbol of the struggle of thousands of Jews to leave the Soviet Union.
"I never believed they would let her out," said actress Jane Fonda, one of the many celebrities who had rallied to Nudel's cause.
Of all the "refuseniks" -- Jews denied permission to emigrate -- "I think Ida was the most hated by the KGB . . . . She's little and she's beautiful, but she's also a strategist," said Fonda, who said the lesson Nudel taught the world was "never lose hope."
Her arrival became an international media event and everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the spotlight. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the country's rival political leaders, jostled each other for position beside her when Nudel and her collie, a longtime companion from the years in Siberia, walked down the ramp from Hammer's airplane.
Both leaders gave speeches at the terminal stressing Israel's insistence that thousands of other refuseniks be allowed to emigrate directly to Israel. Most of the trickle of Jews who have been allowed to leave in recent years have gone to the United States and other western countries, not to Israel.
Peres called the emigration of Russian Jews "the second Exodus" and said the story of the refuseniks was "the story of the Jewish people." Shamir said, "We think today the time has arrived not to fight any more for the rights of individuals, even though they are heroes, but for a national struggle in the name of our motherland, for the repatriation of our brothers in exile."
Shultz spoke to Nudel from Washington by telephone, and there were also several speeches by Israeli immigration officials. There was also a brief speech by Hammer, who said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had given him his personal pledge of Nudel's release three weeks ago.
Through it all, Nudel, 56, sat beaming, her happiness and dignity intact. Finally it was her turn. Her voice faltered and at one point she lapsed into Russian because she was too choked with emotion to continue speaking in English. She repeatedly embraced her younger sister, Ilana Friedman, who had emigrated to Israel in 1971.
It was a bittersweet moment, Nudel said, because of those she left behind. Since Gorbachev took power in 1985, Moscow has released all 21 of the Jewish prisoners of conscience it held in its prisons and this year has permitted more than 4,500 Jews to emigrate. In 1986 only 945 were allowed to leave. But it is still far short of the total -- estimated to be as high as 400,000 by some refuseniks -- who ultimately want to leave.
Nudel had a message for them. "The moment will come," she said. "I promise to you that I will put all my strength, all my devotedness, to your release."
Her struggle began in 1970 when she first applied to emigrate. She was turned down because, she was told, she had had access to state secrets as an economist for a government agricultural plant. The rationale of security has been used to deny emigration to thousands.
But Nudel did not quit. When in 1977 the Soviet authorities began cracking down, arresting refusenik leaders such as Anatoly Shcharansky and Vladimir Slepak and non-Jewish rights activists such as Yuri Orlov, Nudel continued to work openly for emigration. Shcharansky, who was present tonight along with several dozen other former refuseniks, said it was her letters and her campaigning that helped keep him alive during his nine years in Soviet prisons.
Like the others, she was harassed by the KGB -- thrown off a moving bus one time, subjected to a "human cage" of agents who followed her wherever she went. Finally, she gave them the excuse they needed, displaying a banner on her Moscow balcony that read, "KGB -- Give Me My Visa."
That act of defiance cost her four years in Siberian exile on a charge of "malicious hooliganism." While there she became a celebrity -- she received 12,000 letters from people in 51 countries -- and a symbol. She returned to Moscow in 1982 suffering from a heart condition and exhaustion only to find that the authorities would not grant her legal residence. They gave her 72 hours to get out of the city.
She tried seven other towns outside the Moscow area and got the same response. Finally, after six months of wandering, a friend in the remote Moldavian town of Bendery, east of the Romanian border, managed to get her registered.
Four days later, the town's police chief discovered what had happened and had her brought in. In an interview last year with Israeli writer Louis Rapoport, she recalled what happened next:
"I just sat there as he ranted at me, until the storm subsided. I said, 'Look at you. You're a man. You have a gun. You have many aides here who can kill me. Why are you shouting? Why are you afraid of me?'
"He was no fool. He calmed down and turned toward the window. A big, very strong man who had shouted hysterically at a small woman. But I had bested him, and he knew it, and he let me go."
As she bested the Bendery police chief, Ida Nudel also bested an entire empire. Today it finally conceded defeat. Ida Nudel came home.