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Israelis find it difficult to judge whether this war was a 'success'

When an Israeli eats in a restaurant he asks afterwards for the ''hesbon'' or bill. Now that the Israeli Cabinet has approved the negotiated plan for the PLO to leave Beirut, Israelis are beginning to make up their hesbon for the war. In more philosophical terms this is a balance sheet or a reckoning.

It has been the case after all of Israel's wars. After 1967, when Jerusalem was suddenly theirs, Israelis danced in jubliation; after October 1973 there was a deep sense of relief after turning a possible defeat into victory.

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Operation Peace for Galilee, the longest Israeli war since indepedence, has been unique in other respects. ''There is no jubilation now, not even a sense of relief,'' says one Israeli official. ''Even if the government counts it a victory. There have been no songs written for this war.''

Several factors account for the lack of gut emotion inspired by this war. It was fought at a distance from Israel and it did not involve Israel's survival. Perhaps most important, its shifting aims as defined by the government has made it difficult to judge whether the war was a ''success.''

The original goal of the war, as Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote President Ronald Reagan on June 6, was to push back the Palestine Liberation Organization 24 miles north of Israel's border providing a ''cordon sanitaire'' to protect Israel's northern settlements from PLO shelling. So far, this appears to have been achieved.

On the plus side of the ''heshbon,'' Israeli officials also note the stunning Israeli victory over the Syrians - 80 planes shot down with almost no losses - and the achievements of Israeli technology which this evidenced. Such achievements are likely to be reflected in increased Israeli arms sales abroad. (Victories against Palestinian forces, whom many Israeli soldiers say fought ''well'' are not considered indicative of military advances since the Palestinians lacked aircraft and were vastly outgunned.)

But Israeli government aims, as stated publicly, quickly switched to - or as many observers here contend, originally sought - destruction of PLO political and military infrastructure and eviction of the PLO from Beirut. Prime Minister Begin in frequent bursts of hyperbole, stressed that ''every terrorist'' would leave Beirut, and informed American Christian visitors on August 12 that ''we entered Lebanon to get rid of international terror.'' Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir told Israelis on August 11, ''We feel that after its crushing defeat in Lebanon, it (the PLO) must disappear from the political stage in the Middle East.''

The Israeli public already doubts that these goals were achieved. A Dahaf Research Institute poll taken during the first week in August shows that 76 percent of the public believes the war did not wipe out the problem of ''Palestinian terror.''

''Deep in our hearts we know we only bought time,'' says one university professor.

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Moreover, many newspaper columnists now question whether the PLO in military defeat may reap political benefits as world, and US, attention now focus on a solution to the overall Palestinan problem.

Still, this war had the general backing of the Israeli public. The same Dahaf poll shows that 75 per cent of Israelis thought the war was worthwhile, even considering the loss of 320 Israeli soldiers, a tragedy for a country of less than 4 million. The poll also indicated that the ruling Likud government would today win an absolute parliamentary majority of 61 seats out of 120 (as opposed to 51 seats just before the war) while the opposition Labor party slipped to 38 seats.

But behind that flat figure, the poll reflects bitter domestic schisms, one high cost of this war. Thirty-five percent of those questioned wanted a more hawkish campaign, with Israel entering Beirut and presumably wiping out the PLO. But 23 percent said Israel should't have gone beyond the initial 45 kilometers and another 13 percent believed Israel should never have gone as far as Beirut .

In making the ''heshbon,'' it is this skeptical one-third of the public who have been most vocal about the costs of the war. Comprising mainly supporters of Labor or Left-Liberal splinter parties, ethnically predominantly of European stock, and often highly educated, they have been officially dubbed ''the third'' in a much discussed newspaper article by onetime Labor Party Secretary General Arieh (Lova) Eliav. He wrote that in the future Israel can expect a government ''of the two-thirds.'' The divide between the two has only been exacerbated by this war.

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