Israel has been riding a tide of world approval for its uncharacteristic patience and restraint in the face of Scud missile attacks in the Persian Gulf war. But that positive public image suffered an unnecessary setback this past weekend.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir took a hard-line step away from a sense of cooperation when he named to his Cabinet Rehavam Zeevi, an anti-Arab former general who favors expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.In doing so, Shamir has needlessly squandered the understanding and even good will generated earlier among Arabs in the allied coalition and many others as well.

Zeevi, who heads the Homeland Party, which won two parliamentary seats on a platform that Palestinians should be removed - or "transferred" in Israeli political parlance - to Jordan or other Arab countries, has consistently maintained an explosive stand on the Palestinian question.

Within hours of the announcement of Zeevi's addition to the cabinet, Palestinians were discussing it as though it meant that they would be expelled from the territories.

In the past, Zeevi also has been bitterly critical of his government for not retaliating against Iraqi missile attacks.

Some have seen Zeevi's inclusion as a slap at the Bush administration, but Shamir's aides insisted that Shamir had a simple need to expand his ruling majority and that he agrees with none of the new cabinet member's public positions.

Be that as it may, it is unfortunate that he was so insensitive to public opinion at such a crucial time.

Even if Zeevi manages to hold his volatile views in check, his presence at Shamir's right hand is an irritant and an embarrassment.

At the very least, his selection is a monumental public relations gaffe that is not apt to be forgotten quickly and is sure to inflame already heated emotions in the Middle East cauldron.