DOES ISRAEL systematically torture Arab prisoners? The State Department, in its new humanrights report, suggests the answer is yes. Israel "totally denies" the new allegations. They are based on confidential reports, leaked to this newspaper, from a former officer in the American consulate in Jerusalem. The diplomat, Alexandra Johnson, who was briefly engaged to one of the reported victims and who has since been "selected out" of the foreign service, interviewed 29 visa applicants who had been arrested in 1977 and earlier. She related, in cables sent in May and November of last year, their allegations of pretrial mistreatment and torture. Her superiors in the consulate, and now the State Department itself, have essentially supported what she said.

Frankly, it is hard to be aware of the dark underside of the Mideast conflict -- its passions, its enmities and its frustrations -- over the last three decades and not to suspect there is some fire behind this smoke. The facts are always difficult to establish in these cases. Israelis have an obvious interest in covering up. Palestinians could have a variety of personal and political motives for embellishing the details of detention. We believe, nonetheless, that the Israelis, stung by repeated acts of Palestinian terror, have responded at times in wretched ways. If that is so, they deserve to be held to account -- and the whole region needs to be urged toward the general peace that alone holds promise of ending the terror and the torture, too.

But the immediate question that has to be asked is whether, in rendering extremely damaging official charges against a friendly government, the standard of "we believe" is enough. We think not. The State Department's human-rights report is based essentially on one person's interviews with the self-identified victims. What has been published about Alexandra Johnson's personal life and career at the least raises questions about the degree of reliance her superiors placed on her cables -- the first of their sort the State Department had received in the nearly 12 years of Israeli occupation of Arab territories. Though human rights have figured in various American-Israeli conversations for a couple of years, neither she nor other American diplomats discussed the particulars of her allegations with Jerusalem. This newspaper, in writing its story based on the Johnson cables, was offered full on-the-ground cooperation by the Israeli government in examining the truth of the charges, but the actual arrangements have not yet been made.

We await the results of that part of the inquiry to judge better the truth of the State Department's charges. We think all fair-minded people should.