No one who has lost a son or other family member in battle can fail to sympathize with the voice of grief and pain heard from Israel these days. Just this week Israelis buried the 500th soldier killed since the invasion of Lebanon and hardly a week goes by but there is another casualty. To appreciate what these losses mean for that small country, Americans have to remind themselves that, when population is taken into account, Israeli losses begin to be as heavy as those sustained by the United States in the Vietnam war.
No wonder, then, that the Israeli people are deeply distressed and, not unlike Americans a decade and more ago, anguishing over what to do next. The debate seems to center largely on whether Israel should or should not pull its forces out of Lebanon, even though Syria refuses to withdraw its own forces in the wake of the recently negotiated Lebanese-Israeli agreement. If Israel remains in Lebanon, it will face continuing hit-and-run attacks by guerrillas. If it withdraws unilaterally - and the PLO and Syria move in to fill the vacuum - its security in the north could be endangered.
Yet it is not this issue which is central to Israel's dilemma and it is not this issue which will determine Israel's future. The real issue - and it has been such since the founding of the state of Israel - is whether the Jews of Palestine are prepared to live in peace with their Arab neighbors and accord them the same rights of self-determination which they have won by force for themselves.
Encouragingly, there are forces within Israel - such as those embodied in the Peace Now movement - undergoing profound self-examination. They are questioning how a persecuted people that has suffered so tragically at the hands of other nations can now itself be the instrument of suffering to others. Even though many Israelis recognize a biblical right to their homeland, their vision of a promised land does not include the suppression of neighbors. Indeed, they note, down through the centuries the people of Israel have struggled against a dual strain in their character - the desire to establish their identity and community in obedience to Mosaic law and, on the other hand, a search for selfhood through territorial expansion and all the trappings of kingdomhood.