ALMOST EVERY DAY, it seems, something new and frightful is reported on the West Bank and Gaza that brings Israel's occupation policy into deeper disrepute among Israelis and foreigners alike. Last week it was a report by American medical experts accusing the army and police of loosing ''an unrestrained epidemic of violence'' in the last two months -- the more than 50 deaths and several thousand beatings meted out to civilians there. Over the weekend one could read of Israeli soldiers forcing their way into a West Bank hospital and beating up four Palestinians who were giving blood. Yesterday it was a stomach-turning account of an Israeli master sergeant ordering a bulldozer driver to bury alive four young Palestinians; villagers later pulled them out and they survived.
After each of these reports or events, certain things are said in mitigation of them: that there was heavy and sometimes life-threatening provocation; that discipline slipped and the response got beyond the bounds of policy; that the very excess demonstrates the occupation was never set up to restrain defiant civilians; that Arabs have regularly done worse to each other; that Arab hostility has made peace-minded Israel a nation at permanent war; and so on. There is a measure of truth to all these assertions, but none of them cancels out the root truth: what Israelis are doing on the West Bank and Gaza is terrible and indefensible. There is no excusing these things, and many Israelis do not excuse them. Rather, they take the latest events and the international agitation they have stirred as occasion for a fresh look at what Israel must do to ensure a good and secure future.
The debate in Israel is over whether to make grudging tactical concessions until the storm blows over or to use the storm to move Israel into direct address of the basic question Israel has dodged through 20 years of occupation: Should Israel give back territory for peace? It is keenly in the American interest to see that Israelis address that question. Having gone along in low gear for a year with a slow-moving proposal for an international conference, Washington is now shifting into high gear with an alternative approach over which it would have more control. This makes sense as a way to keep up Israel's confidence in its American patron, but of course it puts on the United States the obligation to bring Israelis along if Palestinians are able to field a representative negotiating body ready to accept Israel.