In 1968, in the midst of a confusing war, a unit of the U.S. Army under Lt. William Calley massacred civilians at the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. There had been a cover-up, then an investigation and, in the end, the conviction of Calley himself. The war, though, continued.

There is only the vaguest similarity between what happened at My Lai and what happened in Beirut last September. And there is just the vaguest similarity also between Calley and Ariel Sharon. The most prominent distinction, of course, is that unlike American troops, Israeli soldiers did not do any of the killing. They merely enabled it to occur.

But what was true in a larger sense about My Lai is also true of the awful events in Lebanon. They, or something similar, were destined to happen. You can play with the numbers and you can pick a different location, but the Beirut massacre, like the one at My Lai, was a tragedy produced by bad policy. In both cases, however, these events were treated as aberrations. Both nations examined not their policies, but their morality.

This is the case with the report of the Israeli judicial commission. It has been much praised as an example of democracy in action, as yet more evidence that Israel is a moral nation and proof positive that among nations Israel stands tall, if not clean as a whistle.

The praise is justified. Very few nations would conduct this kind of self-examination. Lebanon, for one, appears incapable of even acknowledging what all the world knows--Christian Arabs murdered Moslem Arabs--and its own investigation proceeds at a glacial pace. It is equally apparent that even some of the more "westernized" nations are incapable of such public internal scrutiny. The report on the My Lai massacre, for instance, was instantly classified.

So Israel is to be congratulated. It did what it had to do and it did it well. But the viability of Israeli democracy or the essential morality of what is, after all, an essentially moral people was never really at question. Israel has always been a democracy, a thriving one with a free press and the institutions that ensure political freedoms. Say what you will of Menachem Begin, he shows no inclination towards dictatorship. And say what you will of the Israelis, they show no inclination to countenance one.

But the larger issue, that of policy, has not been dealt with by the judicial commission. That was not its job, of course, but the question of policy remains the problem. The policy that led to the invasion of Lebanon, that led to an alliance with the Christian militia, that insists on the annexation of the West Bank and allows the military there to harrass civilians, made something like this inevitable--if not a massacre, then some lesser sin. The same was true of My Lai. The issue then was not the viability of American democracy nor the morality of Americans. The real issue was policy--a fruitless and frustrating war.

It is all well and good to cheer the report of the Israeli judicial commission. And it is reassuring to watch a nation search its soul and wonder how, founded on a dream and consecrated to the memory of six million murdered Jews, it could have, in the words of the commission, "indirect responsibility" for the Beirut massacres.

But all this will amount to nothing if the present Israeli government, or its successor, persists in defining national security so that Israel winds up occuping distant Beirut, and defines Israel itself as encompassing the West Bank--home to 750,000 Palestinians. It is this policy that produced a Sharon, now possibly a minister without portfolio, in the past certainly a minister without conscience.

The Israeli report is worthy of praise just as Yasser Arafat's criticism of the report is worthy of condemnation. But it would be missing the larger point not to wonder why the report was necessary at all--why Israel was even indirectly responsible for the massacres. The answer has nothing to do with the viability of its democracy nor the morality of its people. It has to do, instead, with policy--a bad one, and one which, report or no report, has not changed.