JERUSALEM, JAN. 21 -- A U.S. delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger today abruptly reversed the Bush administration's strategy of playing down its relations with Israel during the Persian Gulf crisis, putting on a big show of American support for the Jewish state and publicly lauding the decision of its government to stay on the sidelines of the war.
"The entire atmosphere has completely changed," a senior Israeli official said, referring to Israel's relations with the United States. "They really are at pains to please us and be nice to us. We have finally achieved the level of communication and intimacy with this administration that did not exist in the past."
In the second day of a visit meant to bolster the fragile relationship, Eagleburger and a delegation of U.S. officials toured areas of Tel Aviv damaged by Iraqi missiles and chatted with American crews manning Patriot missile batteries that were rushed to Israel on Sunday to defend against further Iraqi attacks.
Eagleburger then held a press conference at which he stressed U.S. gratitude for Israel's decision to postpone retaliation against Iraq for the missiles that hit greater Tel Aviv and Haifa Friday and Saturday, injuring about 30 people.
While Washington has "never questioned Israel's right to respond to attack," he said, "we also recognize and respect Israel's desire not to be drawn into this conflict and greatly admire Israel's restraint."
Tacitly conceding relations between the Bush administration and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government had had their "ups and downs," Eagleburger suggested that in the aftermath of the outbreak of war and Iraq's attacks on Israel, Washington was anxious to make amends.
"We have a common cause, and we ought to be talking about cooperation and not 'who struck John,' " he said. He added that "the present circumstances show that . . . on the fundamentals there is, was and always will be a very close, respectful and I think equal relationship between the two countries."
Clearly delighted by the change in U.S. attitude, Israeli officials were predicting a new era in relations with Washington in which Shamir's government would be able to win badly needed financial aid for the absorption of Soviet immigrants and avoid the intense U.S. pressure many have feared could be focused on Israel after the war.
Defense Ministry officials said they intend to press the U.S. delegation to arrange the quick delivery of U.S. military supplies to Israel that were promised in recent months but later delayed, in part because of tensions between Washington and Jerusalem. These include 15 F-15 fighter planes, several Sikorsky helicopters, and $700 million in "surplus" ammunition and other gear from U.S. stocks.
Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai arranged to meet with Eagleburger Tuesday, and let it be known that he intends to ask for billions of dollars in American or allied aid to make up Israel's war losses.
Israeli officials continued to stress that the policy of restraint will last only as long as new Iraqi missile strikes do not cause further civilian casualties. If an Iraqi attack penetrates the new defense of the Patriot batteries and kills Israelis, officials stressed, Israel will almost certainly retaliate.
Army spokesman Gen. Nachman Shai told reporters this afternoon that Israel expects more attacks. "Any future reaction on our side depends on if there will be any attack on Israel," Shai said. "We are ready if necessary for a long war and we believe our patience will pay off."
Officials said Eagleburger, who said his stay here was "open-ended," was remaining in part to be on hand for emergency consultations in the event a new Iraqi attack was successful. The United States, these officials said, has basically accepted the imperative of Israeli action in the event of further casualties as well as the inevitability of an eventual Israeli reprisal.
"They are basically taking it day by day," a source said of the U.S.-Israeli discussions, which continued today between Eagleburger and Defense Minister Moshe Arens. He said the two sides feel the next two days could be crucial, as Iraq's motivation to attack Israel is at a peak while its capacity to do so is still substantial.
The Israeli government's decision to hold off on retaliation against Iraq appears to have won strong domestic support. A poll published today by the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth showed 91 percent of Israelis in favor of it -- an unprecedented backing for a Shamir-led government. Likud legislator Binyamin Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, said Shamir had acted so adroitly that "if he keeps it up, he will still be prime minister in 2001."
Still, sources said today that Shamir had faced strong opposition within his own Likud party and right-wing coalition government in agreeing to U.S. pleas for patience. The resistance was led by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who is Shamir's chief rival in the Likud and who, as defense minister, led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Sharon argued strongly that a failure by Israel to respond immediately would be a mistake, sources said, because it could suggest Israeli weakness to its many Arab enemies. The hawkish stand was supported by a substantial block of cabinet ministers, and Shamir had to throw his full weight as prime minister behind the policy of restraint in order to win its acceptance, sources said.