In Jewish tradition the first 10 days of a new year are called "The Days of Awe." A pious Jew is supposed to use these days to prepare for the solemn act of repentance on Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement. This year Menachem Begin used the days of awe to prepare for a singular act of political repentence.

Under extraordinary pressure, Begin decided at the end of this year's High Holy Days to make a stunning about-face and accept a full judicial inquiry into the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut. The fact that Begin reversed himself was due in large part to the remarkable performance of the Israeli press, which proved its democratic mettle during these anguished days.

At the center of the storm were the five men who are this country's leading military correspondents. This is a special breed of journalist. Each must obtain top-level security clearances and formal accreditation from the army they cover in order to work, and each is legally liable himself for any violation of security. In the aftermath of the massacre in Beirut, it was the military correspondents who forced their countrymen to confront the fact that their government knew -- or should have known -- more about the massacre than it first admitted, and might have been able to prevent it.

The Israeli media did not by itself force Prime Minister Menachem Begin to do his humiliating about-face. Many other factors were at work: the wave of international, and especially American, condemnation -- which, strangely, largely ignored the actual perpetrators of the massacres, the Lebanese Christian forces; pressures from American Jewish leaders; massive opposition inside Israel, and growing resentment in the high command of the Israeli military.

But it is fair to say that the Begin reversal would not have occurred without the diligence of the media. Not only did the military correspondents disclose startling information, but the editorial pages kept hammering away at the government, demanding a judicial commission of inquiry. The news media that by law are not allowed to express opinions -- state radio and television -- also contributed with insistent reporting from the scene in Beirut, which had the most important initial effect in bringing the impact of the massacres home to the mass of Israelis.

That the media could play this role is a tribute to the health of press freedom in Israel. But what happened here last month also reflects important recent history, including the feeling of guilt among many in the media about what they had failed to report before the 1973 Yom Kipppur war and deep resentment toward Defense Minister Ariel Sharon for past lies to the press.

Israel first learned of the Beirut massacre from a late Friday night television news program on the eve of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana. Television news' military correspondent, Ron Ben Ishai, who is close enough to Sharon to have won his approval to become the next director of the army's radio station, followed up the horrific news with bulldog persistence.

Part of the developing political scandal stemmed from Ben Ishai's dramatic report on the evening television news that he had personally phoned Sharon at his home late that Friday night with news of the massacre. Sharon, he told his entranced audience, had not reacted at that time beyond saying that he had already been informed of the news.

Ben Ishai is not the only military correspondent with such intimate contacts and the personal phone numbers of the country's leaders. The doyen of Israel's military correspondents, Ha'aretz's Zeev Schiff, had phoned the minister of communications, Mordechai Zipori, about the first rumors he heard from Beirut in the morning hours that Friday.

Zipori, a former deputy minister of defense and disgruntled competitor of Sharon's for the defense ministry, did not seek to verify the rumors with Sharon. Instead, he phoned Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who checked with Sharon's people -- and was told the rumors were groundless.

But several days later, The Jerusalem Post's Hirsh Goodman -- who had returned from a speaking tour in Australia in mid- crisis -- published a stunning report: Israeli army headquarters had received a message on Thursday night from the Christian Phalange command reporting that they had already killed 300 Palestinian terrorists and civilians in the camp. It was a story that could only have come from deep in the army bureaucracy.

The point of these illustrations is that Israel's five leading military affairs correspondents (in addition to Ben Ishai, Schiff and Goodman, they are Eitan Haber of Yediot Aharonoth and Ya'achov Erez of Ma'ariv) are an extraordinary group of men. Their status and contacts in the military establishment make them extremely well informed and lead them to share to a greater or lesser extent the conviction that is rife in the army -- that Defense Minister Sharon is a grave threat to Israel.

The military affairs correspondents, who know as much, if not more, about Israel's military secrets than most army men do, also do not write most of what they know.

Their own sense of patriotism and of responsibility for Israel's welfare would prevent them from doing that. The army censor would complete the job in instances where the journalists'sense of what is good for the country clashes clearly with the interpretation of those who instruct the censors.

In bygone days, before the Yom Kippur war, it was very rare for military affairs correspondents to write anything out of step with the perceptions of the Army High Command. Many reporters still feel, guiltily, that had they been courageous enough to write what they knew was wrong with the overconfident army of that pre-1973 period, Israel perhaps would not have been caught by surprise by the Egyptian-Syrian attack that inflicted Israel's highest casualties since the 1948 War of Independence. Military reporting since 1973 has been much more penetrating and often much more critical.

The Jerusalem Post's Goodman, who is in his mid-30s and served in the elite paratroop corps shortly after emigrating from his native South Africa in the late 1960s, says that the military affairs correspondents have always had excellent relations with all ministers of defense and chiefs of staff, "with the exception of Sharon." He includes the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, in the "excellent relations" category, although in the reporting of many less well informed foreign correspondents, Eitan has often been lumped together with Sharon. The truth is that the two can't stand each other.

To the best of my ability to discover, Sharon is the first defense minister to insist on pressing a formal complaint against an Israeli military affairs correspondent. He has brought charges against Zeev Schiff, who is universally regarded as the best informed and most responsible of these correspondents. I cannot report the charges against Schiff, because that would violate the censorship, but Sharon's accusations are still pending before the Committee of Editors of Daily Newspapers, an informal body of editors that acts as an appeal board on cases involving alleged violations of censorship.

The tenacity of the military correspondents in the past few weeks was also very much a product of the cumulative resentment that began to build up long before the Lebanese operation. It was a resentment born of a sense that the government, particularly Sharon, was lying to the correspondents and, through them, to the public. Indeed, the eruption of widespread popular revulsion and protest can be understood only in the same context.

In a country whose population is profoundly convinced that only its army stands between it and annihilation, the idea that the head of that army is known for his penchant for lying has become intolerable.

Cynics and realpolitik practitioners would argue that lying is at times essential to mislead the enemy and occasionally even to disarm misguided friends. The Lebanese operation is the first instance, however, in which it is clear that the man in charge of the army lied to the Israelis themselves about the purposes of the Lebanon invasion, initial casualty figures and other matters -- misleading the people, parliament and the majority of cabinet ministers who were asked to rubber- stamp decisions already made and in some cases already implemented.

There are some who say that during the first days of the war, even Prime Minister Begin was misled as to which contingency plan was being implemented.

Begin, Sharon, and to a lesser extent the other ministers in the Likud-led government have tended to write off the press as being uniformly and consistently hostile to them.

In the case of Begin this is somewhat surprising because he fancies himself a journalist, having written a political column for Israel's leading afternoon paper, Maariv, for years before winning the 1977 election which made him prime minister. He has acknowledged that the cumulative effect of press criticism of the Labor government that ruled Israel for her first 29 years was instrumental in his party's 1977 electoral victory.

But since then a black cat has crossed the path between Begin and the press. At times, the relationship is reminiscent of the one between Richard Nixon and the American media. This hostility grew during the four years of the first Begin government.

It should be pointed out in fairness that during all this time the government made no overt attempts to muzzle the press. That was to come in the fifth year, the last, and nearly entirely in Sharon's ministry of defense.

In compelling Begin to accept a judicial commission of inquiry into the Beirut massacre, Israeli's free-wheeling press scored a notable victory for the cause of a free press everywhere. It would be incorrect, however, to conclude that the press stands with the majority of the people in Israel against an unpopular government.

During the height of Israel's anguish over the Beirut massacre, a public opinion poll showed that despite notable slippage from the highs he achieved following his triumphant expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, Begin, Sharon and Likud are still by far the most popular politicians and party in the country.

The 400,000 demonstrators who turned out to protest what they believed to be a Begin coverup did not represent Israeli society. Rather, they represented the fact that Israel continues to be split down the middle on most of the issues connected with the larger Arab-Israeli dispute.

The Israeli press speaks to a country that is one of the leading newspaper-reading societies in the world. The dominant opinion of the press, however, represents only half of its people. Begin and Sharon represent the other half.