It is touching to hear from concerned friends of Israel that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza lest both its soul and its image be destroyed by the "occupation." These good friends fail to realize that it is only out of concern for them and their sensibilities that Israel is staying in the "territories." For the Israelis know that if they depart, a rather nasty dispute will erupt among the four major Arab groups there: the PLO, the Moslem Brotherhood, the communists and the pro-Hashemites. It will probably be won within a year or two by the better trained and organized PLO, but then another contest will ensue, this time among the Arafat, Habash, Hawatmeh, Gibril, Abu Musa and Abu Nidal factions of the PLO. And if the Lebanon experience is any guide, the toll of these altercations will be somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people.

The winner of the final round will undoubtedly be the faction with the strongest backer, which means that the pro-Syrian group will prevail and the Syrians will be "invited" to bring stability to the area they consider as much a part of "Greater Syria" as Lebanon. The Israelis will not relish the prospect of a Syrian army -- whose task force equals the size of NATO's and whose air force is twice the size of Israel's -- stationed on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. So they will rush to engage the Syrians somewhere in the Samarian mountains and, aware that Israel's fate is in the balance, will probably win. But what with task force, air and missile battles raging 15 miles from Israel's population centers, and with the Palestinians flanking Jerusalem on three sides and Tel-Aviv on two and attacking along a line nine miles from the sea, the price of victory will be at least 100,000 Israeli casualties and double that number of Syrians and Palestinians.

Now, it may take some time before Israel can acquire the sensitivity to the sufferings of others so magnificently demonstrated in this century by its critics: the Germans, French and British, let alone the Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians. And it may take just as long for Israel to exercise the kind of restraint displayed by America's National Guard and police in subduing demonstrators at Kent State University; rioters in Newark, Detroit and Watts; and the dangerous women and children of that notorious cult in Philadelphia. But Israel will tenaciously cling to the "territories" if for no other reason than to spare its noble friends abroad monumental guilt. After all, living with the responsibility for precipitating the slaughter of more than a quarter of a million people cannot be easy. DAVID BAR-ILLAN Jerusalem

Stanley Cohen {letters, Jan. 14} blames The Post for asking Israel to reach agreement with representative Palestinians and workers if there are Palestinians who are "willing and able to hold to their end of the peace process."

The answer is simple. Israel should allow a referendum in the occupied territories under the auspices of a third party (e.g., the United Nations Security Council or the European Community) to choose a delegation of, say, 10 Palestinians who would negotiate a lasting peace. Israel would be bound to negotiate with this delegation -- even if it happened to consist of members of the PLO. The delegation would be authorized to reach a binding settlement.

This solution would not be possible, however. Israel has made it clear that it will negotiate only with Palestinians acceptable to it, not to the people they would represent. This suggests a pattern of international negotiations no other country, including the superpowers, could hope for. SHARIF IBRAHIM Washington