HEROES AND HUSTLERS, HARD HATS AND HOLY MEN: Inside the New Israel. By Ze'ev Chafets. Morrow. 249 pp. $17.95.

FIRST-TIME VISITORS to Israel are often surprised and occasionally disappointed that their imagined vision of the country turns out to be wrong upon eyewitness inspection. This is not due to any shortage of books on Israel or to lack of coverage in the American news media. In fact, Israel probably receives more scrutiny on a day-to-day basis than any other foreign country. It has been a source of tremendous fascination since its establishment in 1948.

But the popular notion of Israel as one big happy kibbutz, with an efficient military, determined to stay alive in the face of overwhelming odds, has never really represented the full story. For one thing, less than 3 percent of Israelis actually live on a kibbutz. Israel is, instead, a much more complex country, groping to find itself. It has all of the social and economic problems of any other developing society, including unemployment, a bloated governmental bureaucracy, very painful ethnic and religious tensions, political divisions compounded by an electoral system that promotes the creation of small splinter parties, and crime.

But its major problems remain peace and security -- how best to achieve them. Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood. The Middle East is not the Middle West of the United States. And the related problem of living with an Arab minority of 700,000 Israeli citizens within Israel's pre-1967 lines and over a million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza who are not Israeli citizens has further complicated Israel's effort to balance its democratic traditions with its defense imperatives. Understanding what makes Israel tick today, therefore, is no simple matter, especially for outsiders with limited knowledge of Hebrew.

That is why Ze'ev Chafets' new book is so useful. It provides an accurate picture of the real Israel of today, including its fears, hopes, pains, accomplishments, divisions -- and warts. It does so without any heavy sociological jargon or statistics. Rather, with wit, personal anecdotes and easy-to-read prose, Chafets gives us a wonderful, insider's view of the play-by-play action that makes Israel such a dynamic place in the 1980s.

"This book does not attempt to be a comprehensive history or systematic study of Israel," he writes in an introductory note. "It has no chapters entitled 'The Kibbutz,' 'The National Economy,' or 'The Arab Community.' These and other weighty subjects are important and there are numerous books that deal with them." Instead, Chafets says, his book has "a different purpose -- to examine, from a personal perspective, the complexities and complexes of an adopted country which, after twenty years, I still find endlessly fascinating."

Chafets, born in Pontiac, Michigan, went to Israel in 1967 as a 20-year-old. Like so many other young American Jews moved by the 1967 Six-Day War, he simply wanted to spend some time in Israel to see what it was all about. He interrupted his education at the University of Michigan to study for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He wound up staying.

In the mid-1970s, he entered the arcane world of Israeli politics on a fluke. Responding to an ad in an Israeli newspaper, he managed to get a job as a public information spokesman for the Liberal Party, the junior partner in Menachem Begin's Likud alignment. Begin was then opposition leader in the Knesset, but the country was clearly moving his way after the setbacks of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and other scandals and intrigues involving the Labor Party. In the 1977 election, Begin and the Likud won. Chafets, in his early thirties, was named director of vernment press office. He established a first-rate rapport with foreign correspondents in Jeruslam. He was popular and well-liked.

He left that job about four years ago to write Double Vision, a book bashing the American news media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East. While it made many good points, it was basically an angry book. This second book, however, was written more out of love -- and it shows.

THE BEST parts involve Chafets' portraits of Israelis, especially the country's most recent leaders -- Menachem Begin (whom he describes as "the Black Pope of Zionism"), Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitzahk Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ezer Weizman, whom, Chafets reminds us, everyone simply calls "Ay-zer." Chafets writes: "During the first year or two of their association, Begin gallantly referred to Weizman as mon general, while Weizman reciprocated with the offhand contempt of a golden-boy quarterback for the captain of the debating team . . . Weizman radiated star quality, and among the political operatives who gathered in his office each morning he was as conspicuous as Michael Jackson at an Indianapolis Elks Club mixer."

Elsewhere, Chafets recalls a 1977 Likud campaign strategy meeting with Weizman during which a woman complained bitterly about the lack of women in important party posts. When she finished "her harangue, Weizman flashed her a killer smile. 'Well, you're right about the number of women on the list, my dear,' he told her. 'But just remember one thing -- we've got a lot of male candidates with female characteristics.'"

On Begin and Dayan, there is this illuminating passage: "In the biographies that Knesset members fill out before each session, Menachem Begin always listed his occupation as 'attorney and journalist,' and Moshe Dayan called himself a farmer. These may have been strictly true, but were hardly representative of what the two men had actually been doing since adolescence. A more realistic listing would have shown Begin's profession to be 'leader' -- and Moshe Dayan's to be 'national hero.'"

Chafets may be associated with the right wing of Israeli politics, and he is more sympathetic to it than to the Labor Party. But this book, fortunately, is not overly heavy- handed or partisan. Thus, he refers to the territories captured by Israel in 1967 as the West Bank and not by their Biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

While I often found myself laughing out loud, I came away from the book with the feeling that it was, in its own way, an extremely "systematic and comprehensive study of Israel," despite Chafets' opening disclaimers. It was written for an American audience, and those who read it will learn and enjoy.