THE other day at Bebale's, a Tel Aviv restaurant that prides itself on serving the best Jewish food in the city, a question arose between two patrons as to which of the Zionist founding fathers, mortally wounded by an Arab bullet, breathed his last on the brave words, ``It is a good thing to die for your country.''
Consulted for her opinion, waitress Hila Shaltiel settled the issue. ``It was Yosef Trumpeldor,'' she replied. ``And he didn't know what he was talking about.''
A new generation is taking shape in Israel, the first to feed on genuine hopes for peace rather than on preparations for war. And as the prospects for peace in the Middle East inch within grasp, a growing number of Israelis see their country not as a good one to die for, but as a good one to live in.
They are gaining confidence in a widening sense that, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin put it in his speech presenting his Labor-led government to the Knesset (parliament) two years ago, ``No longer are we necessarily `a people that dwells alone,' and no longer is it true that `the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century.''
But even among the most ardent peaceniks, suspicions about Arab intentions run deep. However dramatic Mr. Rabin's handshakes on the White House lawn have been - first with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, and then with Jordan's King Hussein - they have not erased Israeli apprehensions.
With the memory not only of repeated wars, but also of the Holocaust, still looming large in most people's minds. ``this makes us a little paranoid, and maybe rightly so,'' says Tel Aviv University social psychologist Dan Zakay.
``It gives a basic assumption: Don't trust anyone,'' he adds. Indeed, few Israelis would argue with the outgoing chief of the National Defense College, Maj. Gen. Yossi Ben-Hanan, who retired earlier this month.
In an interview to mark his retirement, General Ben-Hanan insisted that even as the promise of peace comes true, ``we should hold our weapons very high in the air, not to threaten, but to prevent any attack.''
Such reservations notwithstanding, the changes being wrought on Israeli society are the fruit of several interwoven influences, analysts here believe.
On the home front, Israelis ``are tired, simply tired of the protracted conflict,'' says Efraim Inbar, who heads the conservative BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
And the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ``made Israelis less willing to hold on to the territories,'' he adds.
Internationally, the 1991 Gulf war crystalized transformations in the world scene that were promising for Israel: Its major ally, the United States, emerged as the only superpower; its fiercest and closest enemy, Syria, no longer had a Soviet Union on which to rely; another potentially dangerous enemy, Iraq, was emasculated.
Partly out of a wish to capitalize on the opportunities this new world offered, Israelis elected Rabin, the Labor Party leader, to replace right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992.
Rabin's pursuit of peace has yielded considerable fruit already - an autonomy deal with the PLO and an end to the state of war with Jordan - that engenders further hopes among the public.
The increasingly evident result of these developments is that Israel is becoming a more normal country, more like its Western partners, ``where the individual and the family are the units, not the nation,'' as Gabi Sheffer, who teaches politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, puts it.
Israel's growing normalcy has helped the peace process prosper, but the prospects of peace have also reinforced the trend to normalcy, Dr. Sheffer argues. ``The political center of gravity is growing - more and more Israelis are drifting to the center,'' refusing to define themselves as only doves or hawks in security terms, he says.
And at the same time, ``the Israeli system is gearing itself to greater liberalization in the economic and political spheres, gearing itself to greater openness.''
What that means in practice is that ``a certain provinciality complex is disappearing,'' suggests Carlo Strenger, a Tel Aviv psychotherapist with a taste for large motorcycles.
``I used to buy all my clothes outside Israel,'' he says. ``I haven't done that for several years. Before, I could only buy Suzuki bikes here; now I can sit on my favorite Honda.''
In the last few years ``I've experienced a very deep change in the general cultural outlook ... from the way waitresses relate to you to business norms, what is acceptable and what is not,'' Mr. Strenger says.
Some Israelis find the changes in their society disturbing, evidence that their fellow Jews ``have lost the historical perspective,'' in the words of Professor Inbar, that ``they are `nowniks.' ''
But few Jews are entirely devoid of a sense of their history, and that makes it hard for many Israelis to really accept peace.
For a start, says Mr. Zakay, who studies Israeli public reactions to the peace process, ``the Holocaust is very deep in the collective mind and soul of Israelis,'' and the mistrust of the world that the Holocaust bred ``led to an obsession with power.''
Surrounded by enemies, ``defense becomes the most important value,'' Zakay explains, ``a social, even cultural value, and we are all accustomed to it. Now, all of a sudden, what happens? A rapid and dramatic change - enemies are no longer enemies, and the people who symbolize power and security are using other methods'' such as diplomacy.
This is highly confusing to many people, who on the rational level approve of the peace process, but who still resist it emotionally. ``There is a big internal contradiction, and that is known to lead to anxiety,'' Zakay says. ``Israeli society is in a way a neurotic society, experiencing a lot of anxiety and insecurity.''
Israelis have traditionally lived in a morally unambiguous universe in which they are right and all Arabs are wrong, but that is changing. To judge by opinion polls and election results, perhaps 30 percent of the population now takes a more complex view of the world, and another 30 percent - while not necessarily having changed their moral stance - has come to the pragmatic conclusion that Israel cannot go on fighting its neighbors forever.
This has made it easier for Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to take tough decisions and carry public opinion with them.
Observers have been surprised to see how matter-of-fact Israelis quickly become about events that were almost unthinkable before they happened. For more than a quarter of a century, Arafat was the devil incarnate to most Israelis; today he lives in Gaza, within 80 miles of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and practically nobody cares.
Most analysts expect the same thing to happen if the government eventually accepts Syria's demand that Israel withdraw fully from the Golan Heights in return for peace.
Public against withdrawing
Though well over 90 percent of the Jewish public opposes such a concession now, ``it is not so impossible as it looks from these numbers,'' Inbar says. ``The center will have to be convinced by Rabin, but I think he can do it.''
``Israelis can be navigated, if you know how to navigate them,'' Zakay says.
Still, peace is hard to get used to. ``Many Israelis feel that peace is worthwhile, that the situation in the world and in the Middle East is such that we can afford to make concessions,'' Dr. Sheffer says.
``But it has not been internalized, it hasn't gone through people's cognitive filters,'' he adds.
``Israelis are accepting [the peace process] and understanding that it is good,'' Zakay agrees. ``But I don't think you can say that they are happy.''
That explains why Professor Inbar finds a majority of the people who answer his opinion polls supporting the peace process generally, but opposing specific steps Israel will have to take in order to make peace.
Such resistance, though, seems bound to fade as normalcy prevails in the Middle East, and Israel builds neighborly relations not only with Egypt, the Palestinians, and Jordan, but also with Syria and Lebanon.
It will certainly take time, but it now seems inevitable that people on both sides of the conflict will at last be able to rescue their humanity from the depersonalizing grip of war.
``It's like every soldier knows,'' Strenger says: ``So long as you don't see your enemy's face, it is easy to shoot. Once you have seen him, it's much harder.''