Fifteen years after its armored brigades raced at breakneck speed across the heavily defended West Bank of the Jordan River and in less than a week captured 2,200 square miles of land from the stunned Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Israel is paying a hidden tribute of war that it could not have foreseen even in the fiercest and darkest moment of battle.

By the time Israel had won it, the spoils of victory of the 1967 Six-Day War were immediately apparent, and in the aftermath the Jewish state was euphoric. It had reunified the whole of its ancient and beloved capital of Jerusalem and had reclaimed for the first time in nearly 2,000 years the stony, sun- drenched Judean and Samarian hills that were promised to the Patriarch Abraham in a covenant with God.

To the vanquished Arabs went the humiliation of defeat, and the bitterness of military occupation. The 900,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and the 500,000 of the Gaza Strip, which was captured from Egypt, began a decade and a half under Israeli rule. And as in all military occupations -- no matter how benign -- life for the Arabs has been one of dispiritedness, futility, resentment and subjugated national aspirations.

But in a sense, the Israelis have become the real victims of their own successes in the 1967 war. Confronted by bitter paradoxes and still unresolved dilemmas thrust on them by history, many Israelis are asking themselves whether the impact of 15 years of forcible occupation has not been greater on themselves than on the Palestinians whose lives they rule.

Chaim Weizman, the first president of Israel, once said that history would judge the Jews for how they treat the Arabs in their midst. But he could not have foreseen the moral dilemmas that lay ahead for the tiny nation that had just been partitioned out of Palestine.

For one, Zionism, as a 19th-century national liberation movement, has evolved by a twist of irony into a state committed as a matter of public policy to suppressing the national ideals of a people who played no role in the European persecutions that it was intended to correct.

Perhaps more than any people in the world, Jews understand and feel the compelling spirit of national redemption, because it is they who for 2,000 years waited in anguish in the diaspora to return to the land that had once been their kingdom. Now it is the Palestinians who are waiting to redeem their land just 15 years after losing it, and the intensity of that aspiration is not a phenomenon of which the Israelis are unmindful, although some may close their eyes to it.

Moreover, a fundemental precept of Zionism is the Jews' historic and religious link to all parts of Eretz (Greater) Israel, which stretches by most accounts from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. But equally important to the Zionist doctrine as redeeming the greatest possible amount of territory in Eretz Israel is the necessity of maintaining in the Zionist state the largest possible Jewish majority.

Shlomo Avineri, a Hebrew University professor and former Foreign Ministry director general under the Labor Party government, summed it up succinctly in a recent political symposium. "You can have a state that may be Eretz Israel geographically," he said, "but sociologically, and intellectually, and emotionally and morally will be a binational state. It is out of this agony over the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish nature of Israel that we must make compromises territorially, because the soul of the Jewish people and the reality of Israel as a Jewish state is as much a Zionist goal as possession of real estate."

Because of the Six-Day War, Israel has been placed in a quandary: Demographers predict that by the year 2000 the Arab population in Israel proper and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined will be almost equal to the Jewish population, given the Arabs' higher birth rate and the Israeli trend of rising emigration and falling immigration.

This means that if Israel annexes the occupied territories and absorbs the Arabs into its nation, there will be a binational state and, eventually, an Arab political majority. If Israel asserts its sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza but deprives the inhabitants full civil rights, in the world's eyes it will have created another Bantustan. Neither prospect is appealing.

As an alternative, Israel has proposed granting autonomous status to the West Bank and Gaza, but the Palestinians, mindful of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's declared intent to assert Israeli sovereignty after a five-year transitional period, have rejected the plan out of hand.

Apart from the political dilemmas Israel faces as an occupying power, the national mood has undergone a distinct transformation in the last 15 years. Some liberal-minded Israelis openly question whether ruling the lives of 1.4 million resentful Arabs has not, in a way, poisoned the soul and psyche of Israeli society and desensitized a people whose religion, after all, is based on humanism.

That there is a social malaise in the country is almost not questioned by Israelis anymore. The nation seems at odds with itself and its values, and the Zionist vision appears somehow to have gone out of focus with a corrosive blend of cynicism and despair that penetrates every level of society. There is a pervasive feeling among many Israelis that Israel is not the place it used to be, and that it is changing for the worse.

The symptoms of the malaise are varied:

* Ethnic differences strain relations between the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe and the Sephardic Jews of Asia and North Africa as the Sephardic majority increases; there are deep ideological divisions between religious and secular Jews, with the orthodox Jews wielding political power far out of proportion to their numbers. Political polarization in Israel is growing, and at times it seems to threaten even the morale and discipline of Israel's revered army.

* Alienation of an increasingly restive younger generation and dissatisfaction with a lack of job opportunities and housing has resulted in unprecedented emigration. In a disturbing trend that flies in the face of Israel's very purpose, about 2,000 Israelis are leaving the country each month, and a total of more than 800,000 now live abroad. (The population of Israel is 3.9 million.)

* Inflation is currently running at 130 percent a year, a rate so high that the only way a wage-earner can stay ahead is to spend as fast as he earns, rather than invest. Income tax evasion has become a steadily growing problem to the government.

* Materialism, the very notion of which was abhorrent to the founding fathers, is more evident than ever before. Young Israelis, as if rejecting the romantic, egalitarian and idealistic image promoted by the state for so many years, have become conspicuous consumers. In turn, Arab workers imported from the West Bank now perform much of the manual labor that Zionism's founders insisted Israelis should do themselves.

* Crime, while minuscule compared to the American norm, is growing at an alarming rate by Israeli standards. Particularly disturbing to many Israelis is the rise in the kind of crime that runs counter to the tradition of humanism inherent in Judaism and flouts the self-sacrificing ideals of early Zionism. On the rise are extortion, violent robberies, drug addiction, child-battering and organized crime.

Whether these symptoms of social malaise are the product of 15 years of forcibly occupying another people or are the cumulative result of enduring what in effect has been a 34- year-long war which four times has erupted into full-scale military conflict is an arguable point.

Israel long has been trapped between its humanistic ideals and its imperatives of national security, and that condition seems inevitably designed to cause wear and tear on the fabric of society.

But there are signs that a sizable segment of Israel's society has become inured to the ugliness of military occupation and the harshness that sometimes accompanies efforts to prevent a subject population from giving vent to its nationalist spirit.

Following the fatal shooting of 12 rock- throwing Arab teenagers during six weeks of civil unrest in the West Bank and Gaza, a nationwide poll conducted by the Modiin Ezrahi Research Institute last month showed that more than 76 percent of Israelis favored the crackdown measures adopted by the army security forces, including the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters.

When an Israeli soldier opened fire and killed a Palestinian woman as she tilled her field, surrounded by her four small children, the slaying attracted little attention in the Israeli press, even though the soldier was arrested. Similarly, there was little public interest when a Bedouin woman holding her baby in her arms in the back of a pickup truck was shot dead by a soldier (who subsequently was demoted one rank and sentenced to the 13 days he had been detained pending his trial on charges of neglect.)

Six army reserve officers who had just completed a stint of duty in the West Bank charged in a press conference last month that while public attention occasionally is aroused by major events in the occupied territories, "the daily reality is one of violence and brutality."

One of the officers told of a soldier who wrote the identification numbers of Arab detainees on their forearms so that he could identify them later in the processing. The reserve officer said, "By coincidence, this happened on Holocaust Rememberance Day, and the soldier was not even aware of the implications of what he was doing."

Elias Freij, mayor of Bethlehem and a man long considered by Israeli authorities to be a moderate Palestinian leader, said in an interview, "They (the Israeli security forces) don't even know that they are dehumanizing themselves. When they lose all feeling for what they are doing to other human beings, they are the victims, not the Arabs."

It is impossible to understand the Israeli psyche, or even to contemplate it thoughtfully, without placing modern Israel into the context of 4,000 years of Jewish experience in a world that has seemed bent on the eradication of a whole people.

Even when they attempt to do so, most gentiles tend to focus on the perversity of Hitler's Germany, forgetting that only a small percentage of Israel's 3.4 million Jews experienced at first hand the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, or even remember relatives who did.

But Jews remember -- indeed, the history they are taught will not allow them to forget -- the succession of other persecutions that were inflicted upon their forebearers throughout the preceding four millennia.

Reflecting upon this history of man's inhumanity to man, a young Israeli father recently recalled that his 10-year-old daughter had once asked him, "Abba (father), why does everybody want to kill the Jews?"

When I asked the father what he told the girl, he shook his head in confusion and, it seemed, embarrassment. "That is something every Jew has to ask himself -- and answer himself. I can't tell you," he replied.

Reminders of the long history of the persecutions of the Jews are everywhere in Israel, in the depressing galleries of the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Museum; in the haunting wail of the sirens that are sounded on Holocaust Remembrance Day; in the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters kibbutz; in the ceremonial burial in the Judean desert of the remains of the warriors of therevolt led by Shimon Bar Kochba in 132 A.D., and in the religious and national holidays that commemorate various oppressions over thousands of years.

The older generation of political leaders, as personified by Begin and his closest circle of ministers, seems transfixed by the Holocaust and other persecutions suffered by the Jewish people, bringing up the memory of those dark days in the context of contemporary issues in eta way that seems to bear little relevance to modern Israel.

For example, when Begin defends the Israeli bombing attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, he routinely invokes the memory of Nazi Germany, and when he justifies Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights or military attacks on Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon, he recalls the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition.

Taking into account the Arab world's 25- to-1 numerical superiority over Israel and its 34-year-old vow to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean, that obsession with the past cannot be dismissed lightly. Jews have learned from bitter experience to trust themselves and not the gentile world when it comes to the question of collective survival.

Yet many Israelis -- even survivors of Hitler's death camps -- seem ill at ease with Begin's frequent use of Holocaust images in his political speeches, and complain that he often cheapens the enormity of that dark era by placing it in a narrow political context to suit an immediate persuasive goal.

Sitting in the press gallery of the Knesset, Israeli journalists, including veterans of bloody campaigns in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, sometimes roll their eyes in exasperation when Begin recites the toll of Jewish children who perished in Nazi Germany. Leaving one such session, Cordelia Evardson, a survivor of Auschwitz who now writes for Swedish newspapers, shook her head in dismay and remarked, "He has a way of making it all so small."

Some Israelis go further and complain that the Begin government is drawing on an account of world sympathy that it mistakenly believes is inexhaustible.

In the Hebrew literary monthly Eton, Boaz Evron, an Israeli commentator, cited the paradox that while the aim of Zionism was to normalize the status of the Jewish people, that has become the case largely in the diaspora.

"Israel, on the other hand, has deteriorated to the level of the eternal beggar, a burden on the world, surviving not on its political, economic or military power . . . but on the basis of the '6 million credit,' on the basis of exposing our rags, wounds and sufferings to the world, on the basis of the past, not the present or the future."

Continuous invocation of the Holocaust and the hatred of Jews in past generations, Evron added, "has created in the Israeli consciousness a peculiar moral blindness, expressed by double moral standards. Because the world was always presented as out to get us, we ourselves are exempted from any moral consideration in relating to it."

Many liberal-minded Israelis share a troubled sense of belonging to a nation obsessed by perceived threats to survival but plunging headlong toward a dangerous precipice of external confrontation -- or, worse, gradual deterioration from within -- because of the very safeguards it thinks are necessary for its continued existence.

Hebrew University classics professor Abraham Wasserstein, whose parents and sister were murdered by the Nazis, struck a responsive chord with these troubled Israelis last month when, in a controversial letter published in the Jerusalem Post, he drew a parallel between public indifference to the Begin government's harsh policies in the West Bank and what he witnessed in Germany prior to the Holocaust.

Recalling that "good Germans," including professors, did not stand up to the incipient stages of the persecution of the Jews, Wasserstein said he was ashamed that his government is trying to make "good Israelis" keep quiet about injustices against the Palestinians. "I am not a German professor. I am an Israeli professor. And when my children's children one day ask my children and me about what I thought or said or did in those days, I do not want to be in the shoes of those German professors," Wasserstein added.

Although Wasserstein's provocative letter generated considerable response over a brief period, the small but vocal peace movement in Israel has never really succeeded in building up enough momentum to significantly influence government policy in the West Bank. The "Peace Now" movement, which in 1978 turned out large rallies and marches to press Begin for flexibility in negotiating with Egypt, is only sporadically active now in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Knesset's two- member Shelli peace faction was wiped out in the last parliamentary election. The Democratic Movement for Change party, whose 15 Knesset members joined the government in 1977 in hopes of exerting a moderate influence on Begin, similarly has vanished from the political landscape.

Judy Blanc, an anthropologist who immigrated to Israel in 1954 and whose husband, Chaim, a Hebrew University professor of Arabic literature, was blinded in the 1948 war of independence, sat in her kitchen and reflected upon the couple's long struggle for peace with the Palestinians. Both are active in "Peace Now."

"I'm afraid that what is happening in the occupied territories is of interest to only a small part of Israeli society. The support or lack of it for what goes on there tends to flow with the level of the rhetoric of the government," she said.

The government, Blanc added, has a distinct advantage over the peace movement, "because it can always summon up those old fears for survival. That's awfully hard to argue against."

Many genuinely troubled Israelis, Blanc said, are incapable of coping with the narrow issue of alleged day-to-day human rights violations by Israeli security forces in the West Bank because they feel that they would then have to commit themselves to a position on the larger question of whether to end the occupation.

"That is when this unthinking panic about survival comes in. It's hard to convince people that the best security possible is peace when the government has them convinced that the very existence of the Jewish state is at stake every day," she added.

Indeed, public opinion polls consistently show that nearly 90 percent of Israelis are opposed to withdrawing from the West Bank, and that 60 percent oppose conceding part of the territory even if it resulted in a peace treaty with Jordan. A broad range pf polls also shows that more than half the population favors unlimited Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Aaron Auerbach, chief psychologist at Shaare Zedek Hospital here, said he believes that public attitudes toward the West Bank -- which he said have steadily hardened in the last five years -- are a result of a "long- term chronic stress" that has been given legitimization by the policies and rhetoric of the Begin government.

"What Mr. Begin says about survival is what people really feel. A Begin outburst about the West Bank can only be understood by the fear of another Holocaust. He has given this trend, which was always there, legitimization," said Auerbach, who immigrated to Israel from the United States 11 years ago.

Calling the trend "disturbing," Auerbach said, "the argument of the West Bank is not fear of losing land, but of losing lives.

"Today the population is beginning to believe that things will never settle down and that there will always be a war of annihilation against Israel. . . . In psychological terms, I would say that the Israeli population is showing clear symptoms of a state of depression, and the consequent paranoia that comes with it."

He said that while these symptoms may be useful in ensuring survival though vigilance, Israel is paying a price by "putting more and more of our energies into survival and less into building a healthy society."