You can say this about the prospective sale of military jets to three countries in the Middle East: It has generated an intensity of feeling in Washington and a degree of personal bitterness and strain not evident here since the most ragged days of the Vietnam debate. Yes, the Panama treaties made some people very angry; Watergate bred a kind of low-grade fever of ugliness for a couple of years, and the fall of Saigon and disorderly U.S. departure from Vietnam created deep anxieties - for a while. But none of these matters, convulsive as they may have been for many, seems to have engaged the passions as the president's attempt to sell jets to the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Israelis has done.

People have been saying vicious things about each other and (not always the case in political Washington) actually seeming to mean them. Unless otherwise defined, the simple, sinister, unadorned "they" may be taken these days to mean the pro-Israel lobby, sometimes merely shorthanded as "the Jews." Some exasperated supporters of the sales will tell you that "they" have gone too far this time in their pressures on and intimidation of legislators and that some unspecified but disagreeable comeuppance is in store. The edge in the voice and the obvious effort not to sound as if they were in fact looking forward to the comeuppance give their anger an a awful authenticity.

The unhappy fact is that many of those opposing the sale (especially to Saudi Arabia) on the ground that they will endanger Israel's security, have adopted the same shorthand, only "we" is substituted for "they." Under this construction, those favoring the jet sales often become, inferentially, anti-Semites and would-be destroyed of Israel, if they are not Jews - and corrupted renegade figures, if they are. "Members of Begin's party," The News Republic recently reported of the Israeli prime minister's cross-country tour, "dismissed any serious rifts in American Jewry and hinted that open dissenters from Israeli policy such as Ribicoff were simply egoists who had been seduced by the Carter administration."

As one who personally happens to have favored the sales, including that of 60 F15s to the Saudis, and who reasoned that this would be good, not bad, for the chance for a fair peace in the area, I have naturally given some thought to both the charges being hurled about the reasons for them. My conclusion is that you have to begin with the assumption that some large part of the conflict is merely what it seems: a very hot dispute between good-faith participants who have different perceptions of what will help to bring about that peace which is essential to Israeli security - and the well-being of the area as a whole. Life-and-death issues are at stake, so it isn't surprising that feelings run high.

But I think there is much more to the current strained atmosphere than that, just as I think the argument concerns much more than the wisdom - or lack of it - inherent in the specific jet sales. It seems to me that some kind of turning point has been reached in the way a number of friends of Israel - Jews and non-Jews - are thinking about their moral obligation to that state. The election of Begin, the Sadat initiative, the prospect of heightened superpower conflict in the region and - yes - the revival of the near-unbearable pain of the Holocaust, in image and memory, have all been elements of the process.

Begin has, in a way, worked against his own interests merely by being who and what he is the hard-liner, the fundamentalist religious zealot. Some of the things he has done strike me as having been extremely skillful and wise and even generous, especially in light of what was expected when he came to office. But that has not been the rule and is, in any event, irrelevant to the change in perception he has brought about: His government and his stewardship have forced people to understand that the welfare of Israel is not necessarily synonymous with the welfare of its elected government at any given time. You do not, in other words, have to share Begin's positions or views to support the Israeli state. In fact, some prominent American Jews who oppose the jet sales have, on other important questions, broken with him.

All this seems to me part of a larger sense that the same old game can't go on in the Middle East, or that it can't go on to Israel's advantage, anyway, since time is running out. Those stunning moments of the Sadat visit to Jerusalem last winter gave us a tiny, momentary vision of what conceivably could and will be in the Middle East. But it will only come about in a political setting friendly to the West, one in which Israel's Arab neighbors are self-sufficient and strong and related to Israel in a way that promotes the economic well-being of all.

I know that that's 1) pretty general, platitudinous stuff and 2) what everyone, including the Begin government, wants ultimately for Israel anyhow. And I know too that the tough, maybe intractable question is the one not mentioned: how you get there. But that is what we are arguing about, and the point seems to me worth insisting on. It has to be granted by the jet-sales opponents that there are people of good will toward Israel who have a different appreciation from theirs of what is required to reach the secure and desirable condition they have in mind for that country.

I'm among them. And because anyone who is will have felt the sting of the Holocaust argument - does one not understand the meaning of "never again"? - I need to add my own understanding of what that unspeakable episode teaches. It is not just a question of vigilance, firmness and total commitment to self-preservation and self-defense. It is also surely a question of looking reality in the eye, of not just hoping and praying and finally pretending that things will be a certain way.

I believe that the most urgent task of the friends of Israel - Jew and non-Jew, Israeli and non-Israeli - lies in confronting the abnormality and fragility of the conventional U.S.-Israeli relationship, the fact that Israel cannot be sustained over time as a garrison state supplied with U.S. arms. Its salvation will only be found in the conclusion of regional friendships that will cost the Israelis something, but not their lives. And I believe that the support, or much of it, counted on in this country comes from an equally artificial and ultimately doomed mode of operating. The Israeli lobby is full of honorable, devoted people. But is also an instrument of pressure on certain wholly cynical politicans who, if the circumstances change, will dump the pro-Israel cause in a moment.

Israel's life and livelihood need to rest on something stronger and better. It's my sense that that's what Carter, Brzezinski, Kissinger and the rest have been about and that it is nothing short of slander to charge them with being careless of Israel's fate.