The Washington Post the other day began a story by saying, "With Israel poised to attack West Beirut . . . " when, of course, Israel had been saying all along that it would not attack West Beirut. What's going on here? Doesn't anyone believe Israel anymore? The answer, I regret, is no.

It was Israel, after all, that said it would go only 25 miles into Lebanon in order to secure a safe border for itself. It went to Beirut instead.

It was Israel that said it was responding to the attempted assassination of its ambassador to Britain but was really using that as a pretext to administer a punishing blow to the PLO. It bombed civilian sectors of Beirut.

It was Israel, in the person of Menachem Begin, who keeps denying what the world can plainly see. He rejected the use of the word "invasion," saying, "Israel did not invade any country." But if a rose by any other name is still a rose, then what Israel did in Lebanon is an invasion.

It was Israel that said it would allow free elections on the West Bank and then, years later, removed the Palestinian mayors that had been elected.

It is Israel that defines "defensive" in such a way that civilians living in another country miles from Israel itself have to worry about their very lives. It is Israel about whom there is grave suspicion when it comes to the ultimate future of the West Bank -- whether it will become autonomous, or whether, as many people think, it will be annexed into Israel itself.

It is Israel, in short, that has a major credibility problem. It has repeatedly lied both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world. It plays with language in the Soviet manner. Just as the words "people" and "democratic" have been rendered meaningless by the communists, so the Israelis -- even though they have been provoked plenty -- have shorn the word "defensive" of its real meaning.

In many ways, of course, Israel is acting just like any other nation. We are the ones, after all, who secretly bombed Cambodia, tried to destabilize the regime in Chile, and murdered people right and left in Vietnam only to call it pacification. We "terminated with extreme prejudice" when we meant killed and we even changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department although, for sure, war continues to be its business.

But Israel was always a special case. Maybe it was just me -- naive me -- but Israel was supposed to be the place where the truth was told, where idealism thrived, where things were different from other countries. The country was founded not on some lust for gold or for territory, but for moral reasons.

But much of that has been squandered. The good name of Israel, built by sacrifice, restrant and principles of justice, has been soiled by the Begin government, which has nothing but contempt for what the rest of the world thinks. It is so full of righteousness, so sure of its own version of history, that it treats its own people and other nations alike as children. It simply knows best and that is all there is to it.

But it isn't. Those of us who truly care about Israel and its ultimate security have been played for patsies. Even as we appreciate the legitimacy of Palestinian claims and acknowledge the role of the PLO, we nevertheless hold a special place for Israel. It might be true that in some sense Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs (who, after all, had nothing to do with the Holocaust), but Israel up until now nevertheless remained a special place.It asked to be measured by a higher moral standard.

But no longer. What it is mostly now is more efficient -- mightier, faster. The world apparently is impressed by what Israel has been able to accomplish in Lebanon, but power and might were not what the dream was supposed to be all about. No one ever appealed to me to contribute so that an army could some day roll into Lebanon. And the United States has not over the years supported Israel just because it needed its power in the region. It was, instead, a worthy cause. Its word meant something.

Now that is less and less the case.The moral standing of Israel has been eroded not only by its actions, but also by its words. The invasion of Lebanon cost it dearly. What it won in territory, it lost in credibility. It is no longer believed. No amount of territory can make up for that.