LONDON, FEB. 5 -- When Bruce Rappaport's name is mentioned in the world of international oil trading, several words invariably are heard. "Tough" is usually the first, followed closely by "secretive," "shrewd," "crude," "powerful" and "rich." Some also say he can be charming.

It is also widely known that Rappaport, a Swiss citizen born in what is now the Israeli port city of Haifa, has made millions, and probably billions, in oil and shipping over the past 20 years.

He is known to have close ties to Israeli government figures, whose interests sometimes mesh with his own.

This combination of qualities and contacts led to Rappaport's involvement in the now-defunct $1 billion Iraqi pipeline project that is being examined by the special prosecutor in his investigation of the activities of Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

In reconstructing Rappaport's role in the project, it still seems to some who were involved with it that he materialized out of nowhere. He first appeared on the project in early 1985, when he was brought together with the U.S.-based Bechtel Group Inc. by an official of the Japanese trading company Nissho Iwai, which had had dealings in the past with both.

Bechtel, which hoped to construct the pipeline, had run into a seemingly unsolvable problem involving Iraqi demands for insurance against an attack on the project by Israel.

Rappaport said he had a solution, one that involved the U.S. government and, by implication, his own 45-year-old friendship with Shimon Peres, then Israel's prime minister.

What happened between the summer of 1985, when Rappaport brought Meese confidant E. Bob Wallach into the deal as his "consultant and adviser," and the ultimate unraveling of the project late that same year, is the subject of the special prosecutor's inquiries.

Today, Rappaport issued a statement denying any improper or illegal activities in connection with the pipeline.

He said that suggestions appearing "in various publications" that he has close ties with American and Israeli intelligence sources were "untrue and unfounded."

Despite numerous requests, Rappaport has declined all interviews except for a brief session last week with Israeli radio.

But from conversations across Europe with businessmen, oil traders and others with close knowledge of Rappaport and his activities, it is possible to construct a profile of the man who is described -- even by those who profess to dislike him intensely -- as a larger-than-life character of many apparent contradictions.

"The oil business is very incestuous," said one close associate in describing those who dominate the business. "There are very few of them, and they are very cutthroat, and they all know each other."

Like all the major traders, one source said, Rappaport has "lots and lots of enemies."

He is said, by people who know him well, to intimidate his staff, which is subject to frequent turnover, and to trust only members of his immediate family, particularly his wife, Ruth, and daughter Irith, to do business on his behalf.

On the other hand, he invites his employees each year to a massive Christmas party, during which the boss inevitably provides entertainment in the form of an annual rendition of the song "My Way."

Rappaport's tough business reputation is coupled with what a one-time associate characterized as a "monumental ego that he keeps pumped up by contributing to Israel." Rappaport is known in Israel as a major philanthropist, contributing large amounts of money to schools, hospitals and other establishments.

"He's a big man in Israel," said the source, who, like all of those who contributed their views of Rappaport, asked that his name not be used. "He visits there several times a year. He's got a lot of influence."

His generosity is not limited to Israel, however. Rappaport also has funded projects in the United States, including "substantial contributions" to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., according to a spokesman there.

Several associates recounted his delight in putting business petitioners off balance with jokes and parables. One described his flamboyance: last spring Rappaport chartered a jumbo jet and flew New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta and the entire Florence Philharmonic Orchestra to Oman for a concert for Sultan Qaboos bin Said, with whom Rappaport had business dealings.

He is a golfing fanatic and counted CIA director William E. Casey, before Casey's death last year, among his golfing partners along with a number of golf professionals. Each year, he sponsors a celebrity golf tournament at a well-known resort somewhere in the world.

From his massive hillside home in Geneva, complete with swimming pool and movie projection room, Rappaport, 65, presides over a web of companies spread around the world. Although his headquarters is in Geneva, where he owns the Inter-Maritime Bank and a service company that handles many of the other enterprises, most of his assets are outside Switzerland.

In addition to his shipping fleet, including several large oil tankers, there are oil refineries in Antwerp and Antigua, another bank and a Bermuda company, National Petroleum Ltd.

Born in the Palestinian city of Haifa, Rappaport is the son of Russian immigrants who built up a thriving cement business there. He became a lawyer and, according to a Wall Street Journal profile published in 1977, served as a legal aide to U.S. and British forces during World War II.

In the 1950s, Rappaport moved with his wife and four young daughters to Geneva, where he set up a company to provide ships with linen, rope, food and other supplies in ports around the world. By the early 1960s, that company had expanded into one that owned, chartered and managed ships.

Rappaport's big break came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he reportedly made millions supplying ships to Indonesia's oil industry. British author Anthony Sampson, in his book "The Money Lenders," described Rappaport's close relationship with Gen. Ibnu Sutowo, then president of Pertamina, the Indonesian oil concern.

The Indonesian government, according to a lengthy account of Rappaport's dealing with Sutowo published in The Wall Street Journal in 1977, claimed that Rappaport tried to defraud the country in his dealings with Pertamina.

Pertamina came crashing down in 1975, when its default on a foreign bank loan caused its financial relationships to collapse throughout the world. Sutowo was fired, and the Indonesian government stopped all payment on debts to Rappaport and others. Rappaport sued Indonesia for $1.25 billion in money owed. He ultimately settled for a fraction of that amount but, as he frequently points out, he won the case.

The Indonesian case was just one of scores of major lawsuits Rappaport has been involved in, most of them at his own instigation.

"He's extremely litigious," said a source. "He doesn't hesitate to sue."

From Indonesia, according to oil trading sources, Rappaport went on to arrange oil deals with Iran, Thailand, Oman and Nigeria. At one point, he attempted to establish a business relationship with the Egyptian government through personal contacts close to then-president Anwar Sadat, one source said.

"That's how he likes to do it," said one informed source. "He likes to get in through the ruling families." The source said that Israel often used Rappaport as a "kind of a stalking horse" with governments that were otherwise unapproachable. The Egyptian deal, however, fell through.

Summing up an image of Rappaport, a former associate used some harsh language to describe him. "But that's not unique," he added. It applies to "anybody who is an active trader in the oil business, and who is successful," he said.

A source closely familiar with Rappaport's activities said that the allegation, raised in some media accounts, that a possible bribe to Peres was suggested by Wallach as a way to win Israeli support for the project does not fit either Rappaport's style or his relationship with the Israeli leader. A bribe, this source said, was not needed.

Israel had its own reasons for not opposing the pipeline. For Rappaport, the source said, it was just another of his projects, albeit one that was more interesting than most.

"That's his thing," the source said. "He's an entrepreneur. He pursues these projects, these opportunities where things aren't quite fitting together, and organizes some individuals, a small group that can work fast and put things together. . . . Here {in the Iraqi pipeline project}, everybody was pursuing their own commercial interests, which happened to coincide with their political interests."