THE 19TH CENTURY German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine once wrote a poem in which Jacob talks to his brother Esau. In the Jewish tradition, Esau stands for the persecuting Gentile, and in Heine's poem, Jacob -- the Jew -- said to his brother: For centuries you have persecuted me and tried to exterminate me, but I was able to survive your persecution. I know you will never vanquish me, but one fear fills my heart: that in the course of the struggle, I will become like you.

Heine's poem poignantly epitomizes the tragedy of Menachem Begin, and even his detractors have to admit that he cannot be understood in anything else than tragic terms.

He grew up in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of pre-World War II Poland. He fled the German occupation to Russia, but his parents and all his family were brutally murdered by the Nazis. In the Soviet Union he was sentenced to a labor camp, and his book of memoirs of that year in the Gulag is one of the most harrowing descriptions of Stalin's kingdom of darkness.

When he eventually reached Palestine, he immediately went into the underground and soon became commander of the anti-British Irgun, with a price on his head. Even when the state of Israel was established in 1948, he was for many years the outcast of the Israeli political system, tainted by his extremist ideology and violent rhetoric. For most of his life, Begin had ample reason to feel persecuted, discriminated and excluded.

One would like to think that suffering ennobles. Yet as Heine suggested in his poem, the victim may turn out to have acquired some of the characteristics of his persecutor: his vindictiveness, his harshness, his heartlessness.

It was Begin's apparent heartlessness in the wake of the Beirut massacres which tilted the opinion of so many Israelis against him in the dramatic last two weeks. Nobody in Israel imagined that Israeli soldiers were directly involved in the killings: This was the handiwork of Christian militias. Yet by letting the militias -- Israel's allies -- in the camps, Israel shared the responsibility for what followed, despite the fact that the Israelis thought all the militias would do would be to go after the PLO terrorists who were still remained in the camp.

What shocked so many Israelis, precipitated an unprecedented outcry against the government, was the self-righteousness and moral indifference expressed by the government and by Begin personally when the extent of the massacres became known.

All Begin had to say was that a "blood libel" was being concocted against the people of Israel -- not one word of compassion, not one glimpse of an awareness that perhaps somebody in Israel had made a terrible mistake, no indication that a full inquiry would be held. It was left to Israeli President Itzhak Navon -- a Labor man who's role is largely ceremonial -- to express the moral revulsion at what happened.

In the juxtaposition of Begin and Navon -- as well as in the confrontation between Sharon and Labor leader Shimon Peres in the Knesset debate that followed -- much more than personality clashes and party politics came into play. Eventually, the government gave in to the pressure and appointed a full- fledged judicial commission of inquiry. But the confrontation was really another chapter in the long history of the conflict of two political cultures within Israel and Zionism. Without understanding that conflict, Israeli politics makes no sense.

Israelis are a hardened people; they have won their independence and preserved it in a cruel world not without resort to arms.

The original thinkers of Zionism never thought that there would be any conflict involved in establishing a Jewish state in Palestine (Herzl thought the Jewish state, not having any enemies, would need no army). Yet the first Zionist immigrants soon found that they were confronted with opposition by the local Arab population. The realization that force might be needed to establish the Zionist dream became one of the major traumas of the Jewish national liberation movement.

It was here that the paths between the two philosophies within Zionism diverged. Liberal and Labor Zionism -- identified with such people as Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir -- came to the conclusion that force could only be answered with force with great losses. But they always remained wary of force, acknowledged the moral necessity to limit and circumscribe it, and always felt deeply ambivalent about their tragic fate of having to use force to establish a dream.

The other wing of Zionism -- identified with Vladimir Jabotinsky and now with Begin -- did not regret the use of force. On the contrary, it gloried it, viewing force as the epitome of national revival, reveled in the mystique of uniforms, fluttering flags and mass rallies.

Characteristically, Labor Zionism called the underground movement it established Hagannah, or defense. Jabotinsky's disciples called their underground Irgun Zwai Leumi -- national military organization. When fighting the British, the Hagannah was careful not to hit British soldiers, only damage British military installations; the Irgun viewed every British soldier, and occasionally civilians as well, as a legitimate target, and Begin himself ordered the hanging of two British sergeants as revenge for a British hanging of an Irgun member. When fighting the Arabs, Hagannah insisted that civilian casualties be avoided; Irgun planted bombs in Arab markets.

The elections of 1977, which brought Begin to power, signified a change from one political culture to another. They reflected a shift in the composition of Israel's electorate: With the increase in the number of the Sephardi voters (Jews from Middle Eastern countries), a larger sector of the Israeli population was made up of people coming from highly traditional societies, much more ethnocentric than the more secularized and liberal European Jews who dominated Israel's political life for decades. Most of Likud's voters come from voters hailing from the Middle East, whereas most of the Labor voters come from European Jews and their descendents.

Where does Israel go from here? The national outcry cleansed the nation of a terrible feeling of guilt. The commission of inquiry will have to do its work in a very charged atmosphere.

Yet the demonstrations were mainly limited to that half of Israel's Jewish population which is of European background, liberal, middle-class and well-educated. There is serious doubt whether what happened has really cut into the hard core of Begin's support among those who like his tough style, his "goyim-baiting" language and his ethnocentricity.

Labor is a viable alternative: Its strength in the Knesset is equal to that of the Likud. Its alternative policy with regard to the West Bank -- opposing annexation, willing to negotiate a generous compromise with the Jordanians and moderate Palestinians -- is attractive to large sectors of the Israeli population. But Begin and Sharon still speak for the equivalent "hard-hats," and their populist appeal should not be underrated.

Democracies do occasionally elect leaders unworthy of their nation: Different as they were, Richard Nixon and Neville Chamberlain had that much in common. Both were Quakers, both were propelled -- though in different fashion -- by what they considered lofty ideals but got bogged down in a quagmire that became their undoing.

Menachem Begin belongs to that category: Like Nixon and Chamberlain he is, by his own lights, a true patriot. But, as in their case, some basic flaw in him makes him his worst enemy and a disgrace to his people.

The great strength of democracies, however, is their ability to transcend their errors and correct their course. The case histories of Nixon and Chamberlain suggest that this is sometimes done in a circuitous way, and after many vicissitudes.

A nation which makes such a mistake paycas dearly for it. Intellectuals and starry-eyed idealists should not, however, think that such flawed individuals do not represent some very deep cravings among the populous: Both Nixon and Chamberlain were immensely popular, a fact sometimes conveniently forgotten.

In the course of such aberrations in a nation's history -- popular aberrations, one should always add -- new words are added to the political vocabulary: "Watergate," "appeasement."

Yet just as America survived Nixon and Watergate and came out of its travail somewhat bruised but also cleansed, so Britain's finest hour came in the collapse of Chamberlain and his pact with the devils.

Eventually, Begin and Sharon will fade into the background. Israel will have to pick up the pieces. But it has already shown its vitality and the resilience of its democratic process by forcing a recalcitrant government to form a committee of inquiry less than 10 days after the event. It took a year to force Nixon into a real inquiry, and two years to bring him down. Two years also elapsed between Munich and the Battle of Britain.

Begin and Sharon may not quit immediately, and the parliamentary situation does not suggest an easy alternative government. But they have been severely wounded, and will never gain be able to rule as before. Sooner or later they will have to go.

A nation nurtured on a prophetic vision has no other way. Begin and Sharon may cling to power, as politicians usually do. But the writing on the wall is all too clear.