BEFORE one can appreciate how, in Ze'ev Chafets' view, the press distorts America's view of the Middle East, it might be instructive to see what that view is. Here are some representative glimpses from polls in the files of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

In an exhaustive poll of attitudes taken in 1980 for the World Jewish Congress, Louis Harris asked a series of questions designed to learn where American sympathies lay in the Middle East and whether they had changed appreciably. They had not. Sixty-five percent of the Americans he surveyed said their sympathies were with Israel; 6 percent said the PLO. Similarly, while 14 percent said they sympathized with the Palestinians, nearly 50 percent preferred Israel. And by overwhelming majorities, Americans described the PLO as "terrorists" and sided with Israel's refusal to give up the West Bank or negotiate with the PLO.

In October 1982, during the height of Israel's war in Lebanon, Daniel Yankelovich surveyed to find the image of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization among Americans. Eighty-three percent said Israelis were "a people we can get along with." Only 24 percent said the same thing of the PLO, a decline of 9 percent from previous years. Seventy-six percent said the U.S. could not get along with the PLO; only 17 percent thought that was true of this country's relationship with Israel.

Eighty-six percent described the PLO as "terrorists," 8 percent said it was "peace-loving"; 76 percent thought the PLO to be "unreasonable" and only 13 percent called it "democratic." On the other hand, 83 percent described Israel as "freedom loving," 51 percent said it was "peace-loving," 72 percent thout Israel was "reasonable" and 74 percent described the Jewish state as "democratic."

An NBC poll around the same time, when Israel was pounding Beirut with artillery night and day, found that although 59 percent thought Israeli military actions had "gone too far," a similar majority opposed American recognition of the PLO. Gallup found 77 percent of Americans had a "favorable" view of Israel against an 11 percent favorable rating for the PLO.

FROM THESE POLLS and a careful reading of American newspapers for the past few decades, it might be concluded from the subtitle of this book that what we have here is a complaint that the American press has been too generous towards Israel, too one-sided and harsh in its coverage of the PLO and Arab world. That would be wrong.

Chafets' thesis is that much of the American press, at least since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil embargo, has been consciously, unfairly, inaccurately and, at time honestly critical of Israel while promoting sympathy for and the cause of the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat.

The guilty news organizations include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune, The International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, ABC, CBS and NBC. And under the leadership of those organizations and others, Chafets charges, "for almost a decade the Western press ha(s) been one of Arafat's most formidable allies."

Against the background of an American press, a succession of Congresses and administrations that have given Israel so much for so long (for very good reason), Chafets' complaint might be called chutzpah. But Chafets, a Wisconsin-born Israeli who was the director of the Israeli Government Press Office, poses a more complicated irony. And what comes to mind is a story I heard from a scholar seeking to explain the messages of irony and guilt in Jewish humor:

The Jewish mother has bought and laid out for her beloved son two ties for him to wear on an important date. And when he emerges from his room wearing one, she asks, "You didn't like the other tie?" It's the guilt-tipped question Chafets asks of an American press that has been wearing Israel's tie for decades.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the brutal pounding of Beirut and the massacres of the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabra in the summer and fall of 1982 gave pause to many Americans who have admired Israel. And polls showed a temporary decline in support for Israel in those months, a decline which deeply concerned American Jews and Israel. Examining the war in Lebanon and the events leading up to it, Chafets spends most of his book blaming most of Israel's problems on the press.

In Beirut, he says, reporters were intimidated by Arab terrorism into remaining silent about acts of violence against their colleagues or writing sympathetically about the Syrians and the PLO. Or, Chafets charges, the American press in Beirut, after covering up the Syrian and PLO violence, were duped by the PLO's public relations and became Arafat's mouthpiece.

Whichever way the PLO acted, according to Chafets, they were damned. If it engaged in violence, the PLO controlled the press with terror. If, as reporters wrote at the time, the PLO became their protector, the press was being suckered.

"The PLO did not usually need to resort to the kind of heavyhanded tactics that characterized the Syrians," writes Chafets. "Arafat and his followers were, by and large, admired. Most of the Beirut press corps never saw the PLO's stick -- they were too busy munching on its carrot. That carrot was the permission the PLO gave them to work in the Lebanese capital and its assistance in covering the secret, semi-underground activities of the organization."

Chafets scoffs at reporters who wrote that the PLO helped them in their coverage of Palestinian affairs. He impugns their integrity, their intelligence, their independence for covering the PLO as if it were a legitimate movement. Never mind that reporters use whatever reasonable means they have at hand to get the story wherever it is. Never mind that the PLO must be and is reckoned with as a story and a movement by much of the world's press and many of the world's governments. Never mind that ignoring the PLO won't make the Palestinian problem disappear.

Like white Southerners in the '60s who were convinced the civil rights movement would die if only the press quit giving publicity to its leaders, Chafets dismisses the press that dares to consort with the PLO and find something positive about it. And he charges that the reporters, many of whom lived or hung around the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, had a "special relationship" with the PLO and were little more than publicists in Arafat's "Commodore Battalion."

Similarly, Chafets charges that reporters in Washington covering the Middle East from Jimmy Carter's White House and State Department were taken in by a conscious conspiracy to pressure Israel into giving up the West Bank and agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. Some papers did the work of big oil. Some Palestinian sympathizers in the press were touched with anti-Semitism or Arabist tendencies. And Jewish reporters (Chafets has gone to the trouble to find most of their names and list them) have a tendency to bend over backwards to be "fair to the Arabs" because they are Jews.

The conspiracy began in 1973, which Chafets says was "the seminal year for the creation of a new, Palestinian-oriented coalition embracing the two most unlikely intellectual bedfellows in American journalism -- the economic giants of management and the Third World enthusiasts in the press corps. Moreover this coalition was in essential agreement with the Middle Eastern policies of the Carter administration, themselves an amalgam of American economic self-interest and support for Palestinian determination."

WITH a few name-changes, this sort of simplistic analysis of the way America works might have come from a Soviet commentator. Chafets' coalition broke up when big oil, big publishers and big business along with the liberal "Third World enthusiasts" deserted Jimmy Carter for Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, probably because . . . well, let Chafets fill in the elements of the new conspiracy.

Having said all this, there is no doubt that some of Chafets' charges against the press in its coverage of the Middle East and the war in Lebanon are true. There were hasty and inaccurate accounts of casualties inflicted by the Israelis. Perhaps reporters did not check out their Palestinian sources. But incompetence, especially in time of war and in the maelstrom of the Middle East, does not necessarily mean conspiracy or dishonesty.

And sure, American attitudes as reflected in the Congress and the press changed as a result of the shocks of 1973. But so did attitudes in Israel, which was similarly shaken by the success of the initial Arab attacks. But again, such changes may reflect reality not conspiracy.

Interestingly, in his final chapters and an "Afterword," which follow more than 300 pages of blaming reporters for Israel's bad press, Chafets acknowledges that the massacres at Shatila and Sabra (which get only brief mentions), the attitudes of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, the incessant, televised pounding of Beirut, all contributed to Israel's public relations problems.

And even more interesting, Chafets acknowledges that the American view of many Israeli actions in Lebanon, which he blames on the press, was shared by Israelis, as recent political events have confirmed. And besides, the polls of American attitudes towards the Middle East and Israel remain largely unchanged. Which gives Israel another breather to deal with its problems, not its public relations.