The withdrawal of Israel's troops from south Lebanon this week brings with it the hope that a three-year national nightmare has ended and the fear that another may have begun. Israeli officials acknowledge that the war achieved virtually none of its aims. In 1982 the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin planned to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization, drive the Syrians from Lebanon, install a pro-Israeli Christian government, and settle Israel's claim to the West Bank.
The closest Israel came to victory was in destroying the PLO infrastructure in south Lebanon. But it did not destroy the PLO. The PLO remains a factor in the Middle East, and the Syrians are the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon. The West Bank issue is still undecided, and King Hussein of Jordan is pushing for negotiations that would require Israel to relinquish much of the land it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Worse, the retreating Israelis are looking anxiously over their shoulders at a south Lebanon newly radicalized by Shiite Muslims. Settlers in Israel's northern border towns again are braced for the shelling they were promised three years ago would be forever silenced.
The war that Mr. Begin described proudly as ``Israel's first war of choice'' became, for many Israelis directly touched by it, Israel's first disaster of choice.
The numbers are sobering. A total of 654 Israeli soldiers have lost their lives in Lebanon. Another 3,195 soldiers were wounded and four more are missing in action, according to the Israeli Army spokesman.
The staggering financial burden of the war accelerated the disintegration of the Israeli economy and left the nation more dependent than ever before on economic aid from the United States.
In December 1981, Begin furiously tongue-lashed then-US ambassador Samuel Lewis, after the US government suspended deliveries of military equipment to Israel in protest of the annexation of the Golan Heights. Begin angrily told Mr. Lewis that Israel was ``not a banana republic'' to be dictated to.
``Nobody would talk to Sam Lewis now the way Begin did before the war,'' observes Yosef Olmert, an expert on Lebanon at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center. ``Because now we are a banana republic.''
What Israelis are asking each other and their leaders is how all this could have happened in a war that was only supposed to last 48 hours -- long enough to drive the PLO from Israel's northern border and achieve ``Peace for the Galilee,'' as the operation was called. The initial, public goals of the war were supported by a majority of Israelis, including the opposition Labor Party.
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had built a ragtag standing army in south Lebanon that was capable of lobbing Katyusha rockets into Israel's northern settlements. Before July of 1981, shelling of the northern border town of Kiryat Shemona caused 40 percent of the population to flee. In the year before the June 6, 1982, Israeli invasion, however, a US-sponsored cease-fire between the PLO and Israel had kept the border area quiet.
But ``the reality was that Arafat could manipulate the situation at will,'' said one Israeli official. ``He could squeeze the trigger militarily or politically.''
What started as a limited operation turned into a march across Lebanon that took Israel all the way to Beirut, to its first siege of an Arab capital, and to a bloody occupation that cost thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian lives and provoked an international outcry.
Israeli analysts such as the respected military correspondents Zeev Shiff and Ehud Yaari have charged that the government was tricked into a large-scale war by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Messrs. Shiff and Yaari charged in their book, ``Israel's Lebanon War,'' that ``clearly, Ariel Sharon envisioned a war whose prime purpose was the establishment of a `new political order' in Lebanon . . . . The essentials of his grand design were never deliberated by the Cabinet -- or the general staff, for that matter -- either before the war or once it was in progress.''
After the massacre of hundreds of number of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982, Israelis took to the streets, demanding an inquiry. The sight of 400,000 Israelis at a Tel Aviv mass rally persuaded Begin to form the Kahan Commission to establish responsibility for the massacre. It eventually found General Sharon indirectly responsible, because Israel had allowed its mostly-Christian Phalangist allies into the camps. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister, but stayed on in the Cabinet and remains a potent political personality. Sharon insists that he had full Cabinet approval for each phase of the war.
``Now, Sharon admits that the war failed,'' said Shiff in an interview. ``But he blames it on the Labor Party, the Americans, the press.''
Last week, leftist opposition parties lost their bid for a commission of inquiry to be formed to investigate the conduct of the war.
Those in favor of a commission of inquiry argue that military and political leaders must be held accountable for a war that succeeded in breaking the Israeli public's consensus on national security. Those opposed, including most of the conservative Likud bloc that launched the war, say Israel's wounds must be allowed to heal.
For many Israelis, the war has left lasting scars and raised difficult questions about their society.
Maj. Zvi Barkai, a sabra (native Israeli), is one of those asking questions. The articulate Major Barkai has served nine years in the elite Golani Infantry Brigade. In the last three years, he has spent a total of one year in Lebanon.
His last tour through occupied south Lebanon was three weeks ago. This reporter visited Barkai's unit in the strategic Golan Heights last week and spoke with him of the war's impact.
Before the war started, Barkai said, ``I knew that we were going to fight against terrorists and I wanted it, too. I was sure that we must do it and everyone here, in my unit, was sure, too.''
It took only one week of battle to change his mind.
``It took some time until the soldiers understood that the war was not necessary, that there is no real solution for the situation and there is no real reason to be here and to hurt and die,'' Barkai said in flat, controlled tones. ``The officers understood it faster. This was no solution for the terrorism.''
In the first two weeks of the war, according to Barkai, 60 soldiers of the Golani Brigade were killed and 200 were injured. ``I lost many, many friends in this war,'' he said. ``I feel tired after so much time there, after the killing, after so many of my friends have died. . . . A year ago, I got married. I want to go home to Haifa and live.''
The occupation of south Lebanon damaged Army morale, Barkai said, even in units such as his where the soldiers are selected for their enthusiasm and commitment.
``Of course morale went down during the war, especially during these last months,'' Barkai said. ``During the beginning of the war, there were many arguments about whether we should be doing it. But now everyone agrees. That makes it harder.''
``We came to realize that if we were to stay in Lebanon and to keep the values, norms, and guidelines of the Israeli soldiers and officers, the price was our blood,'' Barkai said. ``While we were in Lebanon, we understood that the only way for us to keep ourselves alive was to play [according to] their rules of the game. In Lebanon, each man cares only about himself. The best way to make them be afraid of us was to kill some of them, or to destroy some of their property. That was the only language they understood. We didn't like it, but we saw that we must do it.''
``I am very sad about all the things that happened after the first week of the war. It was a mistake. You must understand that I am not extreme in my views, but what this war made me do was think.''
He is bitter about the reaction of Israelis to this war. In the past, the entire nation mobilized to support fighting soldiers. This time, it was different.
``There wasn't great support from those back home,'' Barkai said.
One phenomenon of this war was the variety of protests against it. There were Israeli conscientious objectors. The Army says 140 soldiers chose to go to jail rather than serve in Lebanon. This was previously unheard of in Israel. The amorphous movement, Peace Now, reached the peak of its strength during the war. And soldiers' parents joined in the antiwar Parents Against Silence, demanding an early pullout.
In Jerusalem, another Israeli talked about the war's impact. She is Raya Harnik, whose son, Maj. Guni Harnik, was killed in Lebanon. His mother spent the next three years protesting the war. Mrs. Harnik says she opposed the war from the beginning. After her son's death, she joined antiwar demonstrations, wrote letters to Israeli politicians, and paid personal calls on them to urge an end to the war.
``I feel my son was betrayed by Israel,'' says Harnik. ``He was brought up by me and school and society to fight for his country, to be brave, to be a good officer, and be loyal to his soliders. All those things were put to use in a very debatable war. I didn't bring him up to die in a war to glorify Ariel Sharon's vision of empire and I am very bitter.''
Yosef Olmert of Tel Aviv University contends that the failure of the Lebanon war was the failure of the Likud ideology embodied by Begin and carried out by Sharon.
``Lebanon is all about wrong politics,'' said Olmert, a Labor supporter whose brother is a Likud member of parliament. ``The Lebanon war is all about the ideology of the Likud, that you can solve the Palestinian problem by force.''
``I think the whole war was a big mistake,'' said Zeev Chafets, a former government spokesman. ``If you asked people what they would do if they could go back, 95 percent would press the button and make it not happen. It was a misadventure, but it had it's good points to it.''
Among the good points, Mr. Chafets contended, was that ``the world has turned its back on the PLO,'' and, he said, the war ``made us much, much more cautious about Lebanon and the Arab world in general. It showed us that the Arabs are a bunch of wild men.''
That view of Arabs, experts in Israel agree, is more widespread as a result of the Lebanon war than of previous wars. And it is that view that makes it hard to gauge which way the Israeli public will lean in the future toward peace negotiations as a result of the war.
``Because of the war, the dilemmas are sharper than they used to be,'' says Uri Savir, Premier Shimon Peres's spokesman. ``It didn't change the Israeli need for peace, but it made the need for Arab feedback more acute. There is more pragmatism, more mistrust of the Arabs.''