THE middle-aged reserve soldier mops his brow, positions his helmet visor against the stone-throwing youths across the road, and huffs: ``This is ridiculous. It's like Tom and Jerry: cat chasing mouse chasing cat!'' Along with thousands of others in Israel's citizen army, he has suddenly come face to face with a Palestinian nationalism rivaling his own. A conflict most Israelis had viewed as irritating but manageable has come to involve real, daily costs - political and human. It has become, in the words of Labor Party veteran Abba Eban,something ``inside ourself ... our bloodstream.''
The catalyst for the change is the political unrest that began among the more than 1.7 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza last December; and, at least as jolting, the political solidarity with the uprising evident among the approximately 700,000 Israeli Arabs who live inside the state's pre-1967 borders.
In effect, Israelis are being prodded to choose among the various dreams on which their state was founded. To name just two, which is more important: Jewish-Arab peace, or control of ``Greater Israel?'' They are also having to reassess one tenet always taken virtually for granted: that their vaunted armed forces can ensure security for a Jewish people so savagely deprived of it in the Diaspora.
In the West Bank and Gaza unrest, Israel has met a new sort of security threat, notes Zeev Schiff, an Israeli defense-affairs writer. An army outfitted with the most modern weaponry has found itself wielding wooden batons, tear gas. Trained to confront Arab soldiers, it instead faces teen-agers who hurl stones, or grown women who hurl abuse. The price in troop morale, Mr. Schiff says, has been enormous - if only because a 21-year occupation generally administered by only a few hundred troops has suddenly involved many thousands.
Perhaps more important, adds a senior Israeli television reporter, Ehud Yaari, is that the military brass ``knows they can't solve'' what is essentially a political challenge. ``They know this, and they've said this to the politicians.''
For many Israelis, in uniform and out, the past few months have challenged a whole range of assumptions about a central facet of their existence - relations with Arabs who live in ``Greater Israel.''
Chief among these is the idea that ``so-called Palestinians'' are not a coherent people or nation, but disparate individuals who would sooner or later peaceably accept the Jewish state on its own terms. The corollary is that the ``Palestinian question'' was a cynical and artificial creation of major Arab states, and that an eventual peace with such states would resolve it.
Mikhal Chafets, a 16-year-old whose father ran the Israeli government press office under former prime minister Menachem Begin, no longer thinks the issue is that straightforward.
A student at Jerusalem's prestigious University High School, she describes herself as ``considerably to the right'' of most of the rest of her class. But the West Bank unrest - and a recent class trip to meet with high school students in the predominantly Israeli Arab town of Nazareth - have afforded ``a sobering experience,'' she says.
``The trip to Nazareth showed me how wide the gap is between Arabs' aspirations and my own as a Jew and as an Israeli ... Both sides were brimming with goodwill, politeness. But the bottom line was our desire, our absolute need, for a Jewish state is something that clashes with their very outlook.
``Almost all the Arab students stressed their readiness to be productive, equal citizens of this Jewish state. But it was clear their identity is Palestinian, and with what's going on in the territories.
``I'm surprised to say it, but I've changed my political views in the past few months,'' she goes on. ``Not on the idea of a Jewish state: I know it sounds trite to some people, but I do happen to think that the slaughter of 6 million Jews gives me the right to want a state, a Jewish state, here in Israel.
``But whereas I'd always assumed that we should, would, hold on the 1967 territories, now I say get rid of them.... Let the Arabs run them. If there's peace, great. If not, then we should hit back there in the same way we would against a hostile Arab state....''
Others share her sense of discovery, but draw different lessons from the uprising. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a senior member of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud movement, thinks it would be naive and dangerous for Israel to meet Palestinian violence with political concessions. The Palestine Liberation Organization, he feels certain, would use a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a ``springboard,'' from which to attempt to destroy Israel.
In Mr. Ben-Elissar's view, Israel must continue to offer only the ``Palestinian autonomy'' agreed to at the 1978 Camp David accords, but rejected by the PLO and virtually all West Bank and Gaza leaders as inadequate.
Still, there is a change in tone among Ben-Elissar and other Likud figures here. For one thing, there is now a virtually unqualified recognition of the Palestinians as a people. ``There was no Palestinian people until the Palestinians themselves started to consider themselves as a people,'' he says, adding: ``I do not deny, today, that they have many components of a people.''
Also new is a sense that the autonomy offer must be used not as a device to cement Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza, but, in the words of another senior Likud figure, as a ``compromise allowing us not to rule'' the day-to-day lives of Palestinians there.
On the left, the effect of the uprising has been to lend an even greater urgency to its insistence that Israel try to trade West Bank nd Gaza land for an Arab-Israeli peace. ``For me,'' says a recent Tel Aviv university graduate who is an active Labor party supporter, ``the issue is not even being just, or making concessions to the Arabs.... It's a question of not feeling that this Jewish state was created to be a military occupier, or that the Israeli military was created to beat up Arab kids and women.''
``I have an infant son. I don't want him to have to do that kind of duty....''
And duty it is. ``There is a bond in Israel that outsiders find difficult to understand,'' adds Nimrod Ron, a young Israeli physician who also thinks Israel should trade land for peace. ``For us, not serving in the Army - refusing to serve if the Army has to beat up stone-throwers - is out of the question. Serving in the Army is something familial, almost sacred, a real duty....''
This, says Mr. Ron, makes the process of political reassessment under way in Israel a painful, personal debate.
The debate is made particularly painful by the fact that it has churned up divisions inside Israeli society nearly to fever pitch. In a society taken by surprise by the uprising, still in something of a state of shock, generalizations are perilous. But sidewalk interviews do seem to suggest an increasingly clear battle line between socialist-stock European-Jewish Ashkenazim on the one hand; and an assortment of Jabotinskyites, Sephardim, and (often, American-born) Orthodox ultranationalists.
So far, it is the second of these groups - Israel's right wing - that seems to have gained the greater popular support from the Palestinian unrest.
Yet, one common factor is the feeling among many Israelis that the uprising is at least forcing a debate on questions of Israeli identity which have been open for too long. Says Einat Haskel, a Jerusalem university student, ``Everyone is talking about the problems in the territories.''
New elections are due by November. A prominent Likud parliamentarian, in private remarks, welcomes what he sees as signs that a new Israeli election set for later this year ``will be the clearest ideological election in our history.'' Hebrew University professor Naomi Chazan, whose background and sympathies are closer to Labor, agrees with him: ``In the past, the tendency has been for other issues of the moment to obscure fundamental questions .... This election promises to be the first in our history contested on the basis of rival visions of the state of Israel,'' she says.
But many prominent Israeli political analysts, and even a few refreshingly frank figures in the major political parties, add a caveat: that none of the country's top politicians have yet to match this new sense of partisan sharpness with new visions of how Israel might combine its various historic dreams in such a way as to mold a workable consensus among Israeli Jews, or a workable peace with Palestinian Arabs.
``The [political] situation has changed, I think irrevocably,'' says a veteran Israeli television journalist. ``The question now is when and how that change will be reflected in the political echelon.''
Tomorrow: A country in search of a leader.