A Voice of Strength for Missile-Blitzed Tel Aviv

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Doors had been torn from their hinges, shattered glass and splintered furniture were everywhere. Standing amid the rubble of her home, Lea Weiss stared across the road at the ruins of what was once her neighborhood and shuddered. "One fears the missile, one expects it," she says. "But when it happens, it comes as a surprise." Weiss and her family—husband Eli and children Michael, 24, Daniel 21, and Vered, 14—had just finished dinner and were playing cards last Tuesday when the sirens began wailing in Tel Aviv. Moments later, as they huddled in a room sealed against poison-gas attacks, an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into a nearby apartment house. The deadly blast, which ripped through 20 other buildings in the residential suburb, claimed 3 lives and left 70 people wounded. "Since this started, I don't sleep nights," says Lea, whose family escaped unharmed. "When evening falls, I am caught with fear."

In Jerusalem, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no time for either fear or surprise. No sooner had the alarms sounded than the 41-year-old ex-paratrooper rushed from his home, gas mask in hand, to the Foreign Office's situation room. There he spent two hours giving 20 hard-hitting interviews to television networks in the U.S., Europe and Japan. The "murderous attack on innocent citizens," says Netanyahu, left him "furious and outraged," but he stayed calm and controlled on the air—as always. While Saddam Hussein's missiles have been targeting Tel Aviv, the man a Kuwait newspaper called "Israel's most dangerous weapon abroad" has been no less effective: With his impeccable English and dead-level gaze, Netanyahu—nicknamed Bibi—has been Israel's point man to the world, firing political salvos and galvanizing public support. "Bibi combines the resolve of a soldier with the vision of a statesman," says New York Congressman Stephen Solarz. "He's indispensable at this time of crisis."

Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Jerusalem, Netanyahu moved to Philadelphia in 1963 when his father, the distinguished historian Benzion Netanyahu, accepted a post at what is now the Annenberg Institute. He returned to Israel on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967 to see his beloved older brother, Jonathan, 21, who had left the U.S. and become an army paratrooper. Bibi followed in his footsteps, rose to the rank of captain and was eventually put in charge of an elite, antiterrorist commando unit that rescued 100 people from a Sabena Airlines flight that had been hijacked by the PLO at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv in 1972. That same year he enrolled at MIT as an undergraduate. Four years later, while listening to a Boston radio station, he heard the news of Israel's daring rescue of 103 Air France hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Assuming Jonathan had led the raid, he called home to find out if he had returned—and learned that his brother had been the only commando to die.

After earning an M.B.A. degree at MIT, Netanyahu worked as a management consultant in Boston. In 1982 he was hand-picked by Israel's U.S. Ambassador Moshe Arens to be deputy chief at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Two years later, at 35, Netanyahu became Israel's youngest Ambassador to the U.N. He was appointed to his present post in 1988. Nothing in his diplomatic career has been as trying as the war in the gulf. "For 60 straight hours after it began, I did not get any sleep," he says. "Once, when facing a camera, I caught myself and asked, 'Wait—which country am I talking to?' " Netanyahu finds it increasingly difficult to contain the urge to retaliate—especially, he says, after all his years spent "living in the dangerous neighborhood of the Middle East."

There was no need to remind the bombed-out Weiss family of those dangers. As they packed what remained of their belongings and prepared to move in with a relative, they tried hard to summon their courage and faith. "Imagine how much bigger a catastrophe this could have been," says young Vered, who believes her nightly prayers with her mother saved them. But the consolation is small reassurance. "Now that you were saved by God, are you still afraid?" asks a neighbor. Vered looks away, then answers in bárely a whisper, "Yes."

—Paula Chin, Mira Avrech in Tel Aviv

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