A DAY after the airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa, an official of Israel's El Al airlift speculated on the fate of European Jewry if a strong Israel had existed on the eve of the Second World War. ``If we had the capacity then to airlift 15,000 to 20,000 people in one day as we do now, we could have brought out in one year the 6 million Jews who would die in the Holocaust,'' said Rafi Bar-Lev, El Al's director-general, as he addressed employees who participated in the Ethiopian operation. ``If Israel had existed at the time of the Holocaust, there would have been no Holocaust.'' Operation Solomon, as the Ethiopian airlift was dubbed, has awakened in Israel a deep sense of pride and national pu rpose that is normally buried under life's daily burdens. That purpose - a haven for Jews - is fueled by memory of the helplessness of the Jews in the Holocaust and is perhaps the one issue on which Israel's normally contentious body politic can readily agree.
``The State of Israel is capable of defending and rescuing any Jewish community,'' said Defense Minister Moshe Arens after the operation. ``If there is a need for rescue we will do so without reservation.'' A columnist normally critical of the government, Yoel Marcus of Ha'aretz, wrote that the operation underlined Israel's mission as ``a non-profit insurance company for the Jewish people.''
In the past five decades, Israel has acquired far more experience than any other nation in such rescue operations. In the three years between the end of the Second World War and the establishment of Israel in 1948, emissaries of the state-in-the-making smuggled some 200,000 Jews from Eastern European countries to camps in Western Europe or to ships running the British blockade to Palestine. After the state's founding, Israel surreptitiously brought out a similar number of Jews from Iraq, Yemen, North Af rica, and other parts of the Arab world. Perhaps the best known, albeit small, rescue operation was at Entebbe in Uganda in 1976 when Israeli commandos saved hijacked air passengers, most of them Israelis or foreign Jews.
This accumulation of experience was demonstrated in the Ethiopian operation, which saw effective integration of political and operational skills enabling Israelis to extricate in one day virtually the entire Ethiopian Jewish community.
Ethiopian leaders had attempted to squeeze weapons and huge sums of money out of Israel before releasing the Jews en masse. Israeli troubleshooter Uri Lubrani, in a series of meetings with then-President Mengistu Haile Mariam, narrowed the differences. Last week, Israel's payment to Ethiopia of $35 million, and a letter from President Bush to Megitsu's successor, written at Israel's request, succeeded in winning the Ethiopian government's acquiescence at 12:00 p.m. on May 23, to the departure of the Jew s.
Israel moved to exploit this opening before there were second thoughts in Addis Ababa and before the arrival of the advancing rebels could throw the Ethiopian capital into chaos. On the night of May 23, representatives of the local Jewish community, each responsible for 30 families, assembled at the Israeli embassy. They were told that early the following morning they must inform their people that they were leaving for Israel.
MEANWHILE, the Israeli air force had begun to implement a plan drawn up in the previous weeks. At 10:00 a.m. the next day, the first Israeli plane landed at Addis Ababa's airport. It contained an advance party led by Israel's deputy chief of staff, Gen. Amnon Shahack. According to foreign reports, the Israeli contingent also included troops in civilian clothing to guard against surprises.
Since the operation was officially being carried out with the blessing, however grudging, of the Ethiopian government, the Israeli team had to overcome problems on the ground not by force, but by diplomacy and a judicious distribution of bribes.
Although the airport control tower was manned by Ethiopians, effective control of the airlift was maintained by Shahack's team. At one point, there were 28 planes in the air between Israel and Ethiopia including air force Hercules transports, El Al planes, and leased aircraft. An apparent world record was set by an El Al jumbo cargo plane that carried more than 1,000 passengers sitting on the floor.
Back in Addis Ababa there were hectic scenes around the embassy as thousands of non-Jewish Ethiopians, fearing that chaos would follow a rebel takeover, attempted to board buses carrying the evacuees to the airport. ``It was like the exodus from Egypt,'' says Zimnaa Berhane, an Israeli of Ethiopian extraction who returned to Addis Ababa to help in the evacuation. ``All the things around me were real, but I kept thinking it was a dream.''
For Israeli political and military leaders, there was nothing dreamlike about the operation, which they saw as a projection both of Israel's role as defender of the faith and of its operational abilities. The airlift, said Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, did not include warplanes and was not intended to flaunt Israel's military capacity, but ``our enemies can draw their own conclusion.''