Stung by criticism, Israeli officials say that American news coverage, especially television, of the Palestinian riots is unfair, provocative and damaging. At face, what they say is patently diversionary and self-serving. But just because Israelis regularly charge press bias when things get hot does not mean there is nothing at all to it.
Set aside simple journalistic error and official overstatement, the one correctable, the other expectable, neither a big deal. In the tension between the literal factual truth caught by the camera or the eye (armed soldiers shooting unarmed kids) and the contextual truth resident in the mind (Israel's basic condition of besiegement), dispute and misunderstanding are inevitable. Especially is this so in Israel, at once an open society where foreign journalists roam quite free and a conflicted society whose citizens and West Bank/Gaza subjects harbor deep fears.
Israel, being greatly dependent on American good will, worries chronically that an ''information crisis'' -- the telling term applied to the current situation, as to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, by former Israeli ambassador Moshe Arens -- may contribute to a fatal erosion of American support.
I suspect Israel worries excessively. The political strength and emotional appeal it can muster in this country seem equal to almost any conceivable strain on American-Israeli friendship, including the strain put on by the sometimes too-strenuous application of pro-Israel power. Some Israelis now ask if Israel, in the West Bank, has finally gone too far in the eyes of American opinion. The question reveals more about Israeli sensibilities than American realities.
There is a sharper spur to Israeli charges of press unfairness. Israel's leadership is committed to evading the fact of Palestinian resistance. It would prefer to believe not simply that the occupation has been generally enlightened and benign and that many Palestinians prefer it to an Arab alternative, but that the Palestinian question can be managed and eventually made to fade away in the minds of most of the world, perhaps even of Palestinians themselves.
That foreigners have been told, by the protests, that 20 years of occupation have left the West Bank and Gaza not resigned but smoldering is an embarrassment that Israeli officials, old hands at damage control, treat as a tactical challenge.
That events are forcing this unwelcome message of Palestinian resistance (and Israeli Arab alienation) on Israelis is the serious part. It is an affront to a cherished national myth and, more than that, a direct political challenge to the ruling Likud Party. Its policy is to absorb and perhaps eventually annex the territories and meanwhile to reject the negotiated exchange of territory for peace that the international community has sanctioned, that Arabs started to apply in the Egyptian-Israeli peace and that the Labor Party formally accepts in respect to the West Bank.
Likud spokesmen and friendly foreigners who reinforce their line argue that the riots (and much else) prove the implacability of the Palestinians and the futility of trying to conduct a political transaction with them, at least until they have been schooled by 20 or 40 more years (yes) of occupation.
An honest observer has to concede that the Palestinians, by their violence, intransigence and the indulgent ways of their political culture, keep manufacturing ammunition to bolster this view. Things would be much simpler if there were not some basis in experience as well as a core of bad judgment, fundamentalism and arrogance to the annexationist view.
Some basis in experience but not that much. It is wrong to accept the premise that Palestinians cannot be redeemed before testing their actual readiness for a deal. Testing means more than offering paper pleas to talk. It means accepting a requirement to earn moderate Palestinians' good faith by starting to undo the annexationist ''facts'' Israel has created on the West Bank. This Likud on principle declines to do.
Could Labor? It had the first 10 years after the 1967 occupation, and wasted them. In their next election Israelis will decide whether to give a now supposedly chastened Labor another chance. Even then it will take a moderating of Palestinian views and, perhaps harder, a disciplining of Palestinian ranks: far from a sure thing. But it's the only way.