TEL AVIV -- As always when I am in Israel, people ask me what I think should be done about their conflict with the Arabs. As always, I try to fend them off. Under the Law of Return, I say, any Jew like myself who lives in any other country can become a citizen of the state of Israel automatically and overnight. By choosing not to claim that right, I consider that I am, simultaneously, forfeiting the right to weigh in on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death to those of my fellow Jews who have put their own bodies on the line in the building and defense of a Jewish state. Making the same point a little less melodramatically, I say that giving advice from the safety of New York seems to me presumptuous. It is also unserious, like playing poker with matchsticks.
There are Israelis who love hearing an American Jew talk that way. They are usually politicians in power and intellectuals who are winning the internal political debate. By contrast, the losing factions, hoping to enlist the support of American Jews, will invariably encourage us to speak up. Naturally, once they themselves are in power, these same Israelis are likely to change their minds about the desirability of what will then strike them as unnecessary or impertinent interference from ill-informed outsiders.
At the moment, at any rate, with the right-of-center Likud Party led by Yitzhak Shamir occupying the prime minister's office, it is the left-of-center Labor Party led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that has been most active in ''electioneering'' among American Jews.
Peres is pushing for an international conference, in which the Soviet Union would be included, as the only path to negotiations between Israel and Jordan. Shamir opposes such a conference. Not only does he consider it a great risk to invite the Soviets in; he also sees the whole idea as a prelude to pressures on Israel for even riskier unilateral concessions.
Behind and below this dispute is the issue of whether Israel can or should withdraw from some or all of the territories it first occupied in fighting back against a Jordanian attack during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Labor Party favors what it calls ''territorial compromise.'' The Likud Party favors maintaining the status quo.
During the question period following a lecture I deliver at Tel Aviv University on the subject of neoconservatism in America, I am pressed to take a position on the issue of the territories. The questioner acknowledges my reluctance to do so. But surely, he suggests, I can have no objection to speculating on how an Israeli neoconservative (if there were such a creature) might look at the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Caught in this cunning trap, I surrender. An Israeli neoconservative, I reply, would probably see the Arab-Israeli conflict much as an American neoconservative sees the U.S.-Soviet conflict. That is, he would reject the idea that his own country and its enemies are morally equivalent. Instead he would affirm the superiority of Israel, as a free democratic society, to the repressive autocracies surrounding it.
Beyond this, an Israeli neoconservative would deny that Israel is in any sense to blame for the war that the Arab world has been waging against it from the day of its birth nearly 40 years ago. He would point out that since this war was launched in 1947, it cannot be about the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Nor, for the same reason, can the cause be Israel's opposition to a Palestinian state in those territories.
In short, unlike many on the left in Israel and elsewhere, an Israeli neoconservative would refuse to forget that what enrages the Arabs is the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in ''their'' part of the world -- and not the current boundaries of that state or anything it has done or failed to do.
From this fundamental reality, an Israeli neoconservative would conclude that until the Arabs give up their dream of wiping the Jewish state off the map, no clever initiatives by Israel will bring peace any closer. Conversely, as Egypt under Anwar Sadat proved, the minute the Arabs do decide to reconcile themselves to the existence of the Jewish state, no clever initiatives will be necessary to bring peace about.
Having gone this far, I am forced to stop talking for lack of time. But my mind will not stop, and it races ahead to the reflection that the Israelis, who once seemed so complacent, have in the past few years become much too hard on themselves.
It is a case, I find myself thinking, of battle fatigue. Israel is just approaching its 40th anniversary as a state, and all this time it has lived under siege, surrounded by enemies sworn to destroy it and by a wider world that has never fully accepted its legitimacy. The only days of respite it has enjoyed have been those separating periodic outbreaks of armed hostilities. Now, frustrated by their inability to call off this 40-year war against them, the Israelis have begun blaming one another. In truth, however, they are all equally the victims of a relentless and murderous aggression.
As such, they are confronted wherever they turn with unacceptable alternatives. Holding on to territories in which so many Palestinian Arabs live is dangerous because it could eventually compromise the Jewish character of Israel, its democratic character or both. But giving up the territories is also dangerous because it could compromise Israel's physical security and make it mortally vulnerable to military assault.
Which of these two dangers is greater cannot be known in advance. But I continue to believe that it is a question that only those whoselives depend on the answer have any right to decide.