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Israelis who 'think like Arabs'

The uproar over Israeli behavior in Lebanon raises the question of whether this behavior is simply the aberration of a handful of especially rigid men led by Menachem Begin or whether it reflects a more profound long-term change.

This would be a change in the balance in the Israeli population between Ashkenazy Jews from Europe and Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. If this balance is in fact shifting to the Sephardim, the implications are far-reaching.

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Figures to confirm or reject the possibility are apparently nonexistent. At least, both the Israeli Embassy and the State Department profess not to know. A good many Middle East watchers have the impression, however, that the Sephardim are increasing relative to the Ashkenazim. While the exact figures may be unknown, the long-term trend seems indisputable.

Israel was a European idea. It was conceived, created, and mainly settled by European Jews who by and large were an extraordinarily able and talented lot - educated, cultured, sophisticated. It is from this group that Israel's political leaders, including Begin, have always come.

But over the years, immigrants to Israel have included a certain number of Sephardim who share with the Ashkenazim little beyond the fact of Jewishness. In the countries of North Africa and the Middle East from which they come they have generally been from lower rather than upper social strata and less rather than more educated, cultured, sophisticated. Furthermore, they have tended to share the social and cultural values of their countries of origin. ''They think like Arabs,'' says one American observer.

Americans know better than most people the difficulties of bringing diverse groups together in an integrated society, which is the only real solution. Israel has experienced these difficulties in full measure. It might as well be bluntly said that the Sephardim have been second-class citizens in that they have not fully shared all the advantages of the Ashkenazim.

But they have a higher birthrate than the Ashkenazim. Again, precise figures are lacking, but visual evidence abounds. It is this demographic fact which makes the Sephardim of increasing importance. If they are not now a majority of the population, the day is surely coming when they will be.

They already account for the hard core, perhaps the bulk, of Begin's support. The question therefore arises of whether the Begin government's intransigence - about settlements on the West Bank, about the Palestinians, about Lebanon - is a part of the ebb and flow of political tides or whether it presages a basic long-term shift.

If it is the former, we can expect that sooner or later Begin will lose power and will be replaced by others who are more reasonable. If it is the latter, even though Begin might lose the next election, his successors farther down the road are likely to follow his policies.

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This is a sobering, not to say somber, prospect. It will make any kind of Arab-Israeli settlement more difficult, perhaps impossible. It will make it more difficult, perhaps impossible, even to maintain a tenuous truce. It will make life more difficult, perhaps impossible, for moderate Arabs. It will accordingly increase the opportunities for Soviet adventurism. All of this will greatly complicate American diplomacy.

Already, one hears demands from the Arabs and some Americans that the United States assert itself by withholding some or all of the roughly $3 billion in military and economic aid which it supplies to Israel every year and which is what keeps the country afloat. The trouble with this suggestion is that when a country becomes as dependent on another as Israel is on the US, the extent of the dependence reduces the leverage which might otherwise be exercised. As long as the US is committed to the survival of Israel - and no one suggests that this commitment be weakened - it does not have much choice about aid. As a matter of fact, it is Israel which has leverage on the US. The same paradox existed at various times in the past in the relationship of the US to Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. It exists today in the relationship between the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Nevertheless, if the horrors in Lebanon turn out to be part of a long-term trend and not a momentary lapse, American policy is going to have to be reconsidered. And that will be the saddest part of all, because it will mean that Israel is no longer the country which aroused such high hopes among its friends in Europe and the US.

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