A rare show is currently on the lecture-circuit road: an Arab and a Jew, both Americans, debating U.S. policy in the Middle East. James Abourezk, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League and former Democratic senator from South Dakota, and Hyman Bookbinder, who was the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee for nearly 20 years, are midway through a schedule of 16 debates. One took place the other evening at a local Jewish community center.
Abourezk and Bookbinder, both quick-minded, occasionally have trouble with each other's affability. Neither knows when it might break out. They are somewhere between intellectual playmates waging word wars and fraternity brothers tempted to thump each other's heads with bull-session slogans. Both can go on at frenzied length, as if an open mike and a closed mouth mean the decay of the West, but mostly they debate sharply. They rely more on the pithy distillation than the gassy speech.
Amiable civility also helps send the audience to the book table in the autographing room after the debate. Abourezk and Bookbinder have coauthored ''Through Different Eyes,'' which is the written and more substantial form of their stage show.
Bookbinder supports the ''special relationship'' between Israel and the United States and advocates that it continue. The annual $3 billion in U.S. military and economic aid to Israel is ''a bargain basement rate'' for having ''a democratic ally'' in the Middle East that helps defend American interests. On the matter of the American-Jewish lobby, Bookbinder, proud, believes that ''when it comes to the Israel issue, our strongest issue, our strongest asset, is that we have an easy product to sell.''
Abourezk, obviously, is not among the buyers. Unlike Bookbinder, who is vague on defining the specifics of ''American interests,'' Abourezk argues persuasively that ''Israel's relationship to the United States emphasizes the worst aspects of our overall foreign policy, in much the same respect as our relationship to Guatemala, the contras, Jonas Savimbi and others.''
Israel has found in Ronald Reagan not only a friend but also a partner in militarism. Abourezk writes: ''When Turkey used American arms to invade Cyprus in 1974, Congress was quick to enforce the Foreign Military Sales Act, which prohibits using American weapons aggressively against a third party. Over the years, Israel has used American airplanes, cluster bombs, phosphorous bombs, napalm, tanks and ammunition to devastate Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian civilians. The administration has never come close to certifying to Congress that American weapons were used in such a manner, and Congress has never bothered to enforce the prohibition in the law with respect to Israel.''
Bookbinder, though open-minded and totally incapable of intellectual shiftiness, loses the debate because his allegiance to Israel pushes him to promote the policies of Reagan. The United States has sold arms to dictators in Chile, the Philippines, Guatemala, South Africa and to other undemocratic regimes. So has Israel. The market in death was so wide open that Israel with Reagan sold arms to Iran, the results of which led to Oliver North's becoming a foreign policy visionary.
Bookbinder finds himself in the company of an administration that approved the killing of 68 people in December 1985 when Israeli jets flew to Tunisia to bomb what it called PLO headquarters. Lebanese and Palestinian refugee camps, the impoverished homes to women and children, have been regularly bombed by Israel for more than 15 years. Abourezk writes of this sanctioned violence: ''Although the average American may not make the connection, the knowledge that the terror delivered from the skies by the Israelis comes from American bombs dropped by American-made jets is not lost on those in Lebanon who are targets.''
Israeli repression continues in the occupied territories. Bookbinder has his list of Arab atrocities against Jews -- and the list is long -- but his position is weak because it is undeniably a military position. Abourezk debates from strength because, as he states, ''I happen to be a pacifist, and absolutely believe violence is wrong, no matter what.''
That that stand is not taken by large numbers of Middle East Arabs who have slaughtered Israelis is no reason that Abourezk can't share many of the political goals of those Arabs, beginning with self-determination for Palestinians.
Abourezk and Bookbinder are both aligned with Middle East leaders who justify violence and retaliation. The example of the two Americans -- who fight it out publicly with words, ideas and a shared hope of peace -- is the only victory of late worth celebrating