Everything after Israel's victory in June 1967 seemed so right, so natural. The country had been saved. Jerusalem had been reunited. Surely an Arab would pick up the phone, in Dayan's phrase, and call Israel for peace. In any event, Israel's security looked permanently ensured by the technological superiority of its culture over the culture of the Arabs. In those days one still thought of them as ''the Arabs'' -- collectively, ethnically, dismissively.
1967, 1968, 1969 were painful years here. The promise of the civil rights revolution was turning to ashes in the urban ghettos. The last great crusade of American foreign policy was coming to grief in the rice paddies of Indochina and the streets of America. You did not have to be Jewish to view Israel not only as a military model but as a political society that had found its way.
In time, of course, reality erased this sweet and false picture, and produced a new American-Israeli condition. The quality of state relations, the fervor of official rhetoric, the level of aid have never been higher. But underneath is a layer of unease, a sense of difficulty brewing.
From the detachment shown in 1967 and the ''evenhandedness'' suggested afterward, the United States is now firmly and all but formally on Israel's side of the Arab-Israeli -- better: the Palestinian-Israeli -- dispute. But in the process Israel has become deeply dependent on American money, arms, intelligence, technology and good will.
With Israel's becoming a state living on American remittances comes a potential for distortion. American aid goes not only to defend a friendly embattled democracy but also to support the still relatively high Israeli standard of living. The numbers are too large, and Israel's edge over other aid recipients is too visible. America is generous, and the Israel lobby is powerful, but there have been occasions when Washington held back aid to make a political point, and the impulse could come again.
The assertion that the United States and Israel now share strategic purpose is something every informed person knows to be misleading. There is a consensus that American ships should dock in Haifa in peacetime, but on the true strategic questions -- projecting military power into the Persian Gulf, confronting the Soviets -- there is no consensus. The disintegration of American-Israeli cooperation in the Iran arms affair as soon as it was revealed proves the point. So does the total absence of an Israeli factor in the intense current American calculations over the Gulf.
The two governments came to an overblown vision of strategic partnership in the early 1980s, but this could yet shrink into something more modest and more appropriate to their very different circumstances. The real question is whether this will happen as the result of prudent tailoring by the two countries or whether it will happen with a jolt damaging to one or both of them.
The USS Liberty episode of 1967, in which the United States evidently sent a ship to spy on Israel and Israel bombed the ship to keep its freedom of action from being circumscribed, remains an unhappy but precise expression of a basic continuing difference in strategic perspective.
Since 1967, the United States has come by stages to think that a Middle East peace is possible and necessary. Still, over the years Americans have displayed an uncommon deference not simply to imperatives of Israeli security but to the convenience of Israeli domestic politics: sparing Israel the hard choices it will eventually have to make if it is to do its part to achieve peace. The net result is that the United States does less than it might to promote a peace policy that many Americans believe to be sound for America and safe for Israel.
The 20-year record shows, I think, immense American understanding for the difficulties of making peace with the sort of adversaries Israel has. The record also shows that Israel has used its favor in American politics and public opinion to avoid excruciating decisions on territorial and political compromise with compromise-minded Palestinians.
The 20th anniversary of a war is not a bad moment for people in both countries to contemplate the advantages of acting for peace before there is a slacking in the extraordinary American deference that Israel still enjoys.