THE day following a raid by United States customs officials on three enterprises representing various stages in the manufacture and export of a turnkey chrome-plating facility destined for Israel, reporters were hustled to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. There they received an on-the-record briefing by Gen. Menachem Merom, the ministry's director general. Foul play, suggested Merom: The facility in question was contracted for by Israel in 1984 after letting out bid invitations in four nations. The proceeding was so open and aboveboard that Israel eventually financed the transaction with American aid.
A day later the same points were made by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to US Ambassador Thomas Pickering with the added complaint that someone in the United States was looking to embarrass Israel.
Coming on the heels of the Jonathan Pollard espionage affair, the incident strongly suggests what numerous private conversations confirm -- that the Israelis know they dodged a bullet in the Pollard case and suspect, correctly, that below the level of Secretary of State George Shultz many at the State Department and in other agencies would have preferred to see them dealt with far more harshly.
The initial Pollard revelations triggered a wave of outrage in the Israeli press, stimulated in large part by retired members of the nation's intelligence community. It was noted that the operation defied good judgment and common sense in three ways. First, it exceeded the bounds of traditional intelligence-gathering operations involving the United States, which appear to be limited to electronic means and a network of informal contacts with ``sympathetic'' members of the US bureaucracy.
Second, it corrupted, or took advantage of the corruption of an American Jew, raising the ugly specter of divided loyalty, which US Jews have long argued is a bogus issue since, they say, the interests of America and Israel are totally compatible.
Third, it stupidly invited the arrest of Pollard within yards of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
The current Labor Party leadership tried cutely to distance itself from the operation, in part by pointing the Israeli press toward Rafi Eitan, a member of the Herut Central Committee (Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir are both members of Herut, the dominant party of the Likud coalition).
Eitan, it was said, ran an anti-terrorist analytical unit at the Defense Ministry and may have gone off on a frolic of his own in retaining Pollard.
Eitan's unit, in fact, turned out to be a rather handsomely established intelligence operation under the cover name of the Bureau of Scientific Communications. During the Begin and Shamir years, Eitan also served as the prime minister's adviser on terrorism. Under Rabin and Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Labor, Eitan's job was bifurcated: Amiram Nir became the prime minister's terrorism adviser, and Eitan stayed at the controls of his intelligence machine.
During the first days of the story, the Western press had a field day working Israeli sources, including their fellow journalists. Israel's ubiquitous censors merged with the woodwork, apparently for fear of being implicated in what appeared to be a shameful coverup.
But backstage, Peres was working directly with the secretary of state to satisfy the minimal Shultz demands while restoring the US/Israeli relationship to its prior lofty level. During one conversation Peres agreed to dismantle the Eitan unit and implement procedures preventing a recurrence of the incident. Shultz ordered the incident to be put behind the two countries.
The secretary's decision is yet another indication of how the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States has evolved during the Reagan years from the days when Israel was regarded as a regional liability whose strongest claim to assistance rested on moral grounds and when the term ``Israeli lobby'' and ``Jewish lobby'' were virtually synonymous.
Israel today provides at least as much regional intelligence as it receives from the United States. It has contributed important information on the capabilities of captured Soviet weapons systems and has become a leading source on world terrorism.
F-15 and F-16 planes were first tested in combat by Israeli pilots. Israel has funneled spare US parts to Iran at US urging and has trained some Central and South American security units the US would rather not have dealt with.
Before any European country, the Israelis endorsed the President's Strategic Defense Initiative and gained the right to participate in it. At some cost to its already bad relationship with Moscow, the Israelis permitted construction of a Voice of America transmitter on their soil. The Port of Haifa has become so capable of servicing the Sixth Fleet as to provide the US with a virtual base in this strategically vital region.
So getting the Pollard case out of the way was considered by the secretary of state a matter of some importance to the United States, just as it was considered absolutely vital by the Israeli prime minister.
No sooner had the Shultz/Peres accord been announced than Israeli editors visiting the Defense Ministry were told to dampen their investigative enthusiasm for the Pollard case to prevent Westerners from learning things from the Israeli press.
Reappearing like mice at the cheese bin, Israeli military censors made individual calls to the US media reminding them that the Pollard affair was subject to the ordinary rules of censorship, meaning all material had to be submitted to the censor.
But if things appear back to normal, many Israelis remain disturbed by the sins of omission if not commission committed by the country's senior political leadership. A nation which has blundered into war and economic panic during the past few years requires leaders who exercise rather than dodge responsibility.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.