THIS IS A COUNTRY where it seems that everyone who is anyone has published a book - about himself, about the history of Israel, or about one or another of the wars with the Arabs.
Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, United Nations Ambassador Chaim Herzog, professor-turned-politician Yigael Yadin are just a few of the prominent Israelis whose works line the shelves of English-language bookstores and hotel newsstands. But an entirely unscientific observation among the visitors pouring into Israel this record-breaking tourist season indicates that the most popular book is a new edition of "The Revolt, Story of the Irgun," by none other than Menahem Begin, the prime minister.
First published in 1951, it tells the story of Begin's years as leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground organization that waged a guerrilla war against the British to gain the independence of the Jewish state. In the light of current events, it is instructive to read a new preface, entitled "From the Perspective of a Generation," that Begin wrote for the 1972 edition.
He recalls a radio broadcast he made at the time of independence in 1948 asserting that the Zionists had a legitimate claim to all of Palestine, not just part of it.
"Whoever fails to recognize our right to the entire homland does not recognize our right to any of its terriroties," he said.
According to Begin, the goal he sought at independence was reached in the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan. And now, "It is our duty, fathers and sons," he wrote, "to see to it that the artificial line which disappeared never returns. We must not yield our natural and eternal right."
An American who lives and travels in the Arab world is often asked why the United States has closer ties to this small economically weak nation of three million people than it does to the hundred million Arabs on their vast, strategic oil-rich territories. The question implies that America's interests in Israel, if they could be quantified or computerized, would be far smaller than its interests in the Arab states.
The question overlooks the intangibles that are quickly perceptible to a visitor here, the cultural ties that go beyond oil and religion to a common European heritage and a common way of looking at life that many Americans seem to share with the Israeli upper classes.
THE BOOKS ARE just a part of it. Plenty of Arabs have written books, among them President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, but there is no Arab country where so many political and military leaders have the literary skill and cultural flexibility to write books that advance their cause and appeal to Western tastes.
The linkage carries over into art, music, political style, even dress, in all of which Israel is closer and more familiar to Westerners than is any Arab country.
Consider the events of a recent week. The jazz saxophonist Stan Getz was giving concerts around Israel. String quartets, Israeli and European were performing chamber music by Beethoven and Mozart. Movie theaters were showing Woody Allen comedies. Newspapers blared accounts of the spread of organized crime.
Teen-agers in short shorts and funny T-shirts - like the one showing Uganda's President Idi Amin declaring, "I am a Zionist" - munched pizza as they strolled the streets of the big cities. Meter maids in miniskirts handed out parking tickets. In short, the atmosphere was one in which many Americans would feel at home, far less alien than in Cairo or Damascus, to say nothing of Jeddah.
Of course not all of Israel is like that, perhaps not even most of it. The country is full of people who are not of European or American background, who live in a world of religious orthodoxy that limits their cultural affinity for the West - much like the Arabs, from whose countries many of these other Israelis came.
Just a few blocks from the center of Jerusalem, for example, is the quarter called Mea Shearim, a stronghold of extreme Orthodox Judaism.
THERE THE MEN wear broad-brimmed hats and black clothing and side curls just as they did in Europe before the holocaust. The women wear no makeup, keep their heads covered in public, and favor dresses with long sleeves and low hemlines. Signs plastered on buildings throughout the neighborhood carry a "request and warning" to visitors to respect the community's customs.
Mea Shearim is closed to traffic on Saturday, the Sabbath. Its women are not required to serve in the army, even though the Israeli defense forces are said to be nearly a third female - just two examples of how religion and public policy often clash in Israel.
The American-born journalist Moshe Brilliant, in his book "Portrait of Israel," calls these people "Zealots" and "Vigilantes" who cling to the mode of life of the East European ghettos." According to Brilliant, modern Israelis shun the ghetto-like atmosphere which they associate with the persecutions and humiliations of an era of Jewish history they would rather forget."
Brilliant probably reflects the thinking of the kinds of Israelis with whom Americans would have the most contact - political leaders, cultural colleagues, tourist guides, Western-oriented and often secular people.
But it is not certain, even to the Israelis, that this vision of their country as an outpost of vigorous. Western style life can be sustained indefinitely in a Middle Eastern environment.
Arabs like to say, only partly in jest, that in time the Arabs who live in Israel, the Israeli Jews from Arab countries, and the native-born Israelis who have never lived in the West will bring about a gradual "Levantinization" that will erode the cultural differences between Israel and its neighbors.
I knew an Israeli diplomat who returned here after nearly a decade abroad and said he was distressed at how the country had changed.