Israel confronts its ideals

THE Israeli Defense Ministry should be commended in its finding, after a special inquiry, that two Arab hijackers were fatally beaten while in the custody of Israeli guards, and in pressing criminal charges against its own personnel.

In the face of photos showing the hijackers captured alive after the April 13 bus-seizure incident near the Egyptian border, the inquiry was clearly called for. Defense Minister Moshe Arens rightly condemned the vengeful action. In practical terms, assuring safe handling of captives could be crucial to resolving future terrorist incidents and to the safety of Israelis held by Palestinian factions. With Israel facing national elections on July 23, questions about the Israeli military's handling of the incident could not be allowed to become a political issue.

For a country whose people are troubled with the paradoxes of its very existence - fiercely self-reliant in its military power, and yet holding a deep regard for human life; uncompromising in response to terrorist demands, yet banning capital punishment - Israel has its own internal reasons for having to hold itself accountable to its democratic ideals.

The Israeli election will hinge mostly on economic issues, analysts say - chiefly inflation and steps taken to redress a balance-of-payments gap. Social issues, centering on equal opportunities for Jewish and other factions, will also come into play. Lebanon policy has become more a question of how to stage a withdrawal and yet protect Israel's northern border than a sharply drawn issue between the ruling Likud coalition and the Labor opposition. Earlier questions of why the war started and responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre have been muted by the step-down of former Prime Minister Mena-chem Begin and defense chief Ariel Sharon.

The West Bank's place in the election likewise is not sharply drawn. The Benvenisti report's conclusion that Israeli occupation of the West Bank territory may be irreversible has drawn fire from all sides. Neither the Likud nor Labor can accept a conclusion of ''irreversibility,'' which implies that there would be nothing in the future to negotiate. Both Labor with its peace-for-land and Jordanian options, and the Likud autonomy proposal, make negotiation obligatory.

The Israeli government's recent crackdown on a Jewish terrorist group has offsetting implications for both parties. Labor can argue that such groups could operate under the Shamir government's rule; Likud can say it is the coalition that can enforce the law.

The latest polls show the Labor Party with a slim 45 percent to 41 percent lead. Labor conceivably could win the larger share of seats but fall short of a governing majority. The outcome could depend on the smaller parties, particularly a shift in strength among the religious groups, which could returm the Likud to power.

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