IT IS IMPORTANT to say at the outset that Israel was wrong to bomb the Iraqi atomic energy installation. It was wrong because the bombing was illegal under international law, because Israel took the law into its own hands, because it heightened the risk of war in the Middle East and even because it made the United States, which is Israel's virtual patron, look a bit silly. So for all these reasons, I begin by saying that Israel was wrong.

Now that we have that out of the way, there is just a bit more to be said. It has to do with history and how we tend to compartmentalize it. The Middle East situation, for instance, is lately being discussed as if it emerged full blown out of the desert about two years ago. In this context, or lack of context, Israel is almost always seen as paranoid or belligerent and the Arab states as more or less reasonable, not to mention awash with oil. When you have oil, it seems, reason cannot be far behind.

This perception is based somewhat on the facts. Israel lost its moral monopoly when it became an occupation power, and under Menachem Begin it has been, if not belligerent, then certainly recalcitrant. As for the Arabs, to their credit they are not what they used to be. Anwar Sadat has made peace with Israel and the other Arab states are not as much in the habit of peppering the air with a call for a holy war and oaths to drive the Zionists into the sea. They have moderated their rhetoric, if not their intentions. Time will tell if one is linked to the other.

But all this is recent and it does not take into account the Palestine Liberation Organization, which still likes to paraphrase the bitter cavalry remark about the only good Indian being a dean Indian. The PLO has never repudiated its intention to destroy Israel and, indeed, it reaffirms it from time to time. But certainly more than before, the rule among most of the Arab states is to be reasonable.

The result is that they have managed not only to isolate Israel geographically and politically, but also historically. The last several years have somehow been cut off from the preceding years. So when Begin says that the Baghdad nuclear installation was bombed out of self defense, the world either laughs at him or condemns him.

After all, Iraq promised it would not use the installation to make a bomb. After all, Iraq, like Israel, is entitled to a bomb anyway. After all, Iraq is a nation, too, and when Israel launched a preemptive attack on another country it acknowledge a place for for this tactic -- a tactic that could be used against Israel in the future.

But history says that this is not the first preemptive attack. The arabs, Iraq included, have done some of this themselves -- starting a war once on the holiday of Yom Kippur. And Iraq happens to be ruled at the moment by a dictator who knows something about attacks himself -- he launched one on Iran. He seems quite capable of not only making a bomb, but using one. There is a precedent, after all. The only nation to have used an atomic bomb in warfare did so when its survival was not at stake. If we could do it, why not Iraq?

Anyway, all this is historical context and it goes a long way toward explaining, although not necessarily excusing, what Israel did. Yet much of it seems to have been swept aside or, worse yet, mentioned as if these were not real, traumatic events but should, in the name of neatness, fairness and a better world for us all, be ignored. Into this historical dustbin is supposed to go 38 years of warfare, poisonous Arab-Jewish relations even before the 1948 independence of Israel, and even the Holocaust.

But history cannot be dismissed. With past as context, you can understand what Begin means when he says he did what he had to do. You can understand what he means when he talks about his responsibility to the children of his country and you know that he is right in thinking -- surely he thinks this -- that the world would rather have oil than Israelis and that if the Iraqis had an atomic bomb and used it, the world would condemn, complain -- and then go on with its business. There has been, after all, nothing but business since Hiroshima.

So once again it needs to be said: Israel was wrong -- legally, for sure, probably morally as well. I said it at the beginning and I say it again now. Israel was wrong. But for the right reasons.