THE coming anniversary of Israel's spectacular victory in the June 1967 war has a special significance to many thoughtful members of this society. It means that for exactly half of its 38-year existence the Jewish state has also been an empire. There are, today, more than half a million Arabs inside the old ``green line,'' but 1.3 million more in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. This compares with a Jewish population in Israel of just over 3 million.
More than half the Arabs in the occupied territories were not even born before 1967. Israeli men and women entering military service today have known no life other than as occupiers of Arab land.
The demographics of the situation are of concern to many Israelis. Last year, for the first time, there were more Arab than Jewish births in Israel and the territories.
While religious and secular supernationalists view the territories as an organic part of ``Eretz Israel'' and see the decision on whether to adapt or leave as an Arab problem, more liberal commentary probes the future.
Israelis wonder whether, with a possible Arab majority in the future, they can retain both the Jewish character of their state and its democratic orientation. What will be the ethic of a society that has at its command so large an available source of cheap labor? Can Israel ever enjoy peace with its neighbors so long as it holds portions of their territory?
That Israelis dwell so earnestly upon such questions as though they belonged exclusively to the future shows an uncanny knack for ignoring the answers already provided by the occupation.
In fact today, as ever since 1967, Israeli democracy stops at the green line. Economic and political justice has yet to penetrate the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Two wars have already been fought to keep ``Greater Israel'' intact; only when Israel found it possible to relinquish conquered land did it achieve the far greater security of a peace treaty with Egypt.
Surprisingly, many in this otherwise well-informed society are all but oblivious to conditions in the occupied territories. Few know, for example, that in the West Bank and Gaza Strip military law governs the Palestinian Arabs, while Israeli law, with all its protections, applies to Jewish settlers.
Not many Israelis are aware that an Arab resident of the territories finds it impossible, or nearly so, to export goods to markets coveted by the Israelis, sell products inside Israel, start a business that might compete with Israeli enterprises, attend a political meeting, charter a bank, or drill a well for water. Few know that more than half the West Bank and about a third of Gaza have already been confiscated by the Israeli government.
Fewer still are aware that 50 percent of the Gaza labor force has been forced by circumstance into menial jobs inside the green line; that through economic coercion and discrimination Israel engineered a trade surplus with the occupied territories last year approaching half a billion dollars; or that the brunt of Israel's pitiful economic performance falls most heavily on its Palestinian subjects.
Also, few Israelis are aware that in the occupied territories, due process of law is largely a sham. The current labor-led government, which brags to overseas audiences of steps it has taken to improve the ``quality of life'' on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has in fact reinstituted three police-state procedures -- detention without charge, summary deportation, and the demolition of homes lived in by those suspected of political violence -- which the Likud Party of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon found itself able to do without during its last five years in office. Nor is the more than occasional brutality of occupation troops brought home to those living inside the green line.
Israelis -- except those participating in or benefiting directly from the above practices -- remain unaware or only dimly aware of their existence.
One reason is that the Hebrew language press, with one or two exceptions, covers such stories sparingly because it has few Arab readers and Israeli Jews prefer to read other matters.
Then, too, all Palestinians have to some extent been tarred by the broad brush of terrorism, with even liberal Israelis tending toward the view that any abuse in the territories is warranted by the demands of national security.
Many Israelis would happily trade ``land for peace.'' As they hold the PLO, along with Jordan and other Arab states, responsible for the failure to begin negotiations, they also place the blame for the failure to achieve peace at the doorstep of their Arab adversaries.
This accords far too much power to Israel's neighbors, while shunning the responsibility of Israelis themselves for preserving the ``Jewish character'' of their own state. For the character of that state will never be determined by demography alone, but also by whether Israel reflects in all its dealings the values of kindness, compassion, justice, moral rectitude, and charity long regarded as Jewish ``mitzvot,'' or virtues.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.