Because of an editing error, an individual quoted in a story Monday about immigration to Israel was incorrectly identified on a second reference. Dore Gold, the source, is with the Jeffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. He is not a Likud Party activist. (Published 6/14/90)

JERUSALEM, JUNE 10 -- The massive immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel has prompted an aggressive reaction in the Arab world and is one of several powerful new forces propelling the Middle East toward a potentially explosive era of change, military and academic experts here say.

Even as Israelis exult in the planeloads of new citizens flying daily into their country, government and military officials here are warning that the Middle East has entered a period of heightened tension, defying the trend toward the resolution of regional conflicts in other parts of the world.

Both Israelis and moderate Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have warned that, if it is not managed well, the change in the region could lead to another war. "In this period of change there are a lot of short-term dangers," said Dore Gold, an expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "Unless there is a genuine attempt to move ahead with a political process, there are clear dangers of escalation that all lead to a regional war."

In the long term, many Israelis say that the great Soviet immigration -- which stands at 10,000 per month and could double this summer -- may lay the foundations for an end to the Middle East conflict. The influx of population and talent to Israel could help the country overcome its feelings of insecurity, giving it the confidence to make compromises for peace. At the same time, it could extinguish the flickering hopes of Arab radicals that the Israelis, like the Crusaders before them, can somehow be induced or forced to leave the land.

For now, however, the immigration and the fears and antagonism it has spawned among Israel's neighbors have contributed to several regional trends that experts here find worrisome. One is the seemingly growing instability of Jordan, whose King Hussein says he feels threatened by the new settlement in Israel. Another is the growing alignment of Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization with Iraq, whose President Saddam Hussein is seen here to be seeking the role of de facto leader of the Arab world -- in part through belligerence toward the Jewish state.

Within Israel, the immigration appears to have had the effect of hardening the positions of some in the ruling Likud Party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who on Monday is due to present a new right-wing government to parliament. Key right-wing leaders appear to believe that the new population could make Israel's hold on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip irreversible, and that perception could retard any move by the government toward peace talks, some politicians here say.

Overall, "we are seeing a revival of the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Asher Susser, the director of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. "Just a few years ago, people were saying that there was, in effect, no longer an Israeli-Arab conflict, only an Israeli conflict with the Palestinians. But now the immigration has shown us that the broader hostility of the Arab world to Israel is still there."

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall last November, it has become clear that the latest European upheaval, like the two world wars earlier in the century, created forces that can upset the prevailing balance of power in the Middle East and possibly remake its politics.

The wave of Soviet immigration, which began to grow during the tumultuous fall of 1989, is only one of the new factors in the region. Arab states and the PLO also have been deeply affected by the relative disengagement of the Soviet Union from the Middle East, the loss of Eastern Europe as a source of political, economic and military support, and the spectacle of popular democratic revolutions against autocratic regimes spreading to the borders of the region.

"The immigration, combined with the changes that have occurred with the shift in the Soviet posture in the Middle East, have created a tremendous sense of insecurity in the Arab world," Gold said. "And there are two standard cards that Arab regimes play at times of insecurity in order to maintain their internal legitimacy. One is Arab unity and the other is the war against Israel."

Experts here say the fading of the Middle East as a potential arena for U.S.-Soviet confrontation, and the clear reluctance of Moscow to back any move by its longtime client Syria toward military confrontation with Israel, have ameliorated the climate in the region. Yet they point out that even as the superpowers have begun to disengage from the Middle East, they have continued to supply it with large quantities of sophisticated arms.

"Both the superpowers have continued the arms race here, because there is still a market and they need the money," said Zeev Schiff, the defense and security correspondent of the newspaper Haaretz.

Israeli experts say that both Syria and Iraq have chemical weapons and are working on ways to mount them on intermediate-range missiles capable of striking the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia is believed to have obtained Chinese-made missiles capable of striking Israel, and is seeking to purchase billions of dollars' worth of conventional materiel from the United States.

Israel, for its part, has tested intermediate-range missiles of its own and is believed to possess chemical and nuclear weapons.

In this climate of mutual intimidation, Soviet Jewish immigration has played on the fears as well as the power rivalries inspired in the Arab world by the changing strategic conditions.

For the PLO and Jordan, which has a majority of Palestinians in its population, the wave of new population in Israel has inspired the fear that Palestinians now in the occupied territories will be overwhelmed or forced out, ending the dream of a separate Palestinian state in the territories and destabilizing Jordan's regime.

Because of the claims of Israeli rightists that Jordan should become the official homeland of the Palestinians, "the Soviet immigration fits in exactly with what King Hussein already thought Israel had in store for him," said Susser, an expert on Jordanian affairs.

Fear of Israel has helped drive both Jordan and the PLO into alignment with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who has offered his formidable military machine as a protective umbrella and stirred the Palestinian masses in both Jordan and the territories with fiery threats to "scorch half of Israel" with chemical weapons in the event of an Israeli attack.

In this way, Arab fears of Israel's new strength dovetail with the jockeying of Arab leaders for regional leadership. As hard-line Iraq has gained, Egypt, its moderate rival, has lost ground because of its failure to broker a peace process involving Israel and the Palestinians.

For some scholars here, the scenario is disturbingly similar to that which preceded the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states. "In 1967, it was not just one factor that led to war, but a mix of things," said Yair Evron, a professor at Tel Aviv University. "It's similar today."

In the mid-1960s, Evron recalled, Israel's completion of its national water distribution system disturbed Arab states in much the same way that Soviet immigration does today. "If we look back at 1967, the process that led to the war was deep competition between Egypt and Iraq, and escalation between Israel and Syria based on growing Syrian insecurity," Evron said.

Evron pointed out that the Arab world today is much less prone to confrontation with Israel than it was in 1967, largely because of Egypt's commitment to peace with the Jewish state. However, he said, "what I'm worried about is not a deliberate decision by a united Arab front to go to war against Israel, but a process of escalation that is played out by a mix of false perceptions, regional ambitions and the new weapons systems."

Already, an escalation of hostile perceptions seems to be underway between Israel and the Arab states over Soviet immigration. While some Arab leaders say they oppose the influx because of fears of Israeli expansionism, many Israeli leaders have interpreted Arab hostility to immigration as motivated not by legitimate fears but by an enduring aim to destroy Israel.

"Opposing the immigration because of settlement in the {territories} is a pretext," said Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "What really bothers the Arabs is the idea that the state of Israel is permanent, and instead of wasting away it is getting stronger."

"When the Arab states come screaming against the immigration, it touches a raw nerve here," said Haaretz correspondent Schiff, "because it strengthens the impression that the Arab world is still not ready to accept the existence of the state of Israel and is aiming toward its destruction."

In fact, both the Arab and Israeli fears appear to be at least partly justified. With the exception of Egypt, most Arab states have not made a clear distinction between opposition to the settlement of the Soviet Jews in the territories and opposition to further immigration to Israel.

Similarly, the position of Shamir's government on how the Soviet immigration will affect Israel's control of the West Bank and Gaza is, at least, ambiguous. In January, Shamir stunned the West and galvanized the Arab world by declaring that "a big immigration needs a big Israel," adding, "We need the space to settle all the people." In the storm of controversy that followed, the prime minister corrected the statement, saying that by "big" he meant "strong."

Since then, the government and the quasi-official Jewish Agency have focused with sledgehammer insistence on the argument that, since only a few of the arriving Soviets are actually moving to the territories, the issue is moot.

According to the latest figures released by the Jewish Agency, only 285 of the 49,000 Soviet Jews who have come to Israel since April 1989 are living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli settlements in those territories have a population of about 70,000.

Still, critics say, the government's figures do not include at least 3,000 Soviets who are now living in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that also fall outside Israel's 1967 borders. Moreover, Shamir's government has made clear its intention to support the expansion of settlements. In the last three months alone, government spending on the settlement drive has been increased by more than $30 million and two new communities have been founded.

Until now, one of the central arguments made in Israel against annexing the territories has been that the country would never be able to absorb their 1.7 million Palestinian residents and remain a majority Jewish state.

Demographers say that even the immigration of 1 million Soviets is unlikely to change decisively the demographic balance. According to one study, to assure the 80 percent Jewish majority in the territory the country presently holds, the entire diaspora of 8 million Jews would have to immigrate to Israel by the year 2020.

Still, Likud activist Gold argues that "what may be relevant politically is not the absolute figures but the sense of trend. Raw data is one thing, but psychological expectations are another."

In the long run, some experts here say, the immigration wave may have the more modest effect of ensuring Israel's control of the territory inside its internationally recognized borders. In recent years, the country's sense of insecurity has been heightened by the fact that Arabs outnumber Jews in large areas inside Israel.

In the end, then, Soviet immigration may sharpen the dispute among Israelis over where to draw the boundaries of their state, while increasing the pressure on them to do so.

"We have to convince our neighbors that Israel can absorb any number of newcomers with no expansion," said Arie Eliav, a Labor Party parliament deputy and longtime immigration activist. "Because if the bloodshed continues, that will be a sign for many of the Soviet Jews to go somewhere besides Israel where they can live in peace."