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.
''And always the prophets had to bring us back to the greater vision,'' commented an Israeli in our offices the other day, one who has held high office in the government. ''Our history is more than just the Book of Judges. It is also Isaiah and Jeremiah.''
Such are voices which give hope that the people of modern Israel will ultimately turn to the path of peace and those nobler sentiments which gave Zionism its early impulse. The Balfour declaration of 1917 is often cited as the historic act which grants Jews the right to establish a homeland in Palestine, but less often is it recalled that the same document requires that this not prejudice the rights of the Arabs. Jews in fact were prepared to accept the 1947 United Nations partition plan which divided Palestine in two, a portion for the Jews and a portion for the Palestinian Arabs.
Much water has flowed under the dam since. Many wars have been fought and much land seized. Israel today is ''greater'' than ever, if the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights are taken into account. Yet few people, Jews or non-Jews, believe that more territory has provided more security , more peace, or more national satisfaction. Indeed if the Begin government continues its settlement and absorption of the West Bank, Israel will end up with some 1.5 million Arabs within its borders which it will have to govern, control, and at times perhaps ruthlessly suppress. What will that say of the character and purpose of the Zionist state?
Today it is clear that the Jews cannot be dislodged from that patch of arid land on the shore of the Mediterranean which their forebears once possessed. It is also clear that the Palestinian Arabs, their national consciousness quickened , will not rest until they have won some segment of that land which their forebears also possessed. How can the yearnings of these two peoples be reconciled - peoples who both have suffered injustice, who both have legitimate claims to the territory, who both feel themselves profoundly wronged and indeed have been wronged?
To any outsider, the answer can only lie in coexistence, in a mutual willingness to share the land and to begin to live without the hatred and fear that corrode the soul of each. To reach that point of humane compromise, however risky it may be, would seem to be the great need of Israel today. No one - certainly not the United States - can force such a compromise. It can only come from within, by summoning up the Jewish people's deepest moral and spiritual ideals.