NO SINGLE incident within memory involving the United States and a friendly nation has left a more bitter taste than the sinking of the intelligence ship USS Liberty off Gaza during the 1967 Mideast war. Thirty-four American Navy men died in an 80-minute Israeli air-and-sea assult that Israelis have attributed ever since to a case of mistaken indenty: they say they mistook the American electronic surveillance vessel for an Egyptian supply ship. An American court of inquiry found that an "unprovoked" Israeli attack had been made on a ship "properly marked as to her identity and nationality" but did not speculate on the reason for the attack.

More recently, a retired Navy officer who was wounded in the attack, alleging a cover-up, has reported some telling details. The Liberty was flying a bright new flag, he said, and one or more of the half-dozen Israeli planes that flew over just efore the attack identified it correctly in a message sent back to shore. The attackers, he went on, were intent not only on sinking the ship but on killing the crew: life rafts were shot up and spirited away. The motive attributed was to keep the Liberty, which had the equipment to eavesdrop on Israeli battlefield communications, from informing the U.S. government that Israel was planning to invade Syria, as it shortly did.

Was the United States, in putting an intelligence ship in a war zone, counting too casually on the forbearance of a nation that, however friendly, was engaged in a war that many felt was a struggle for its very survival? Did Israel, in hitting the ship, really make a mistake or was it trading with intolerable cynicism on its overall relationsip with the United States? Certainly the two governments have shown no inclination to address such questions. Indeed, just the other day, acting without prior notice during the transition lull, they rubbed the slate clean by finally coming to terms on the sum that Israel will pay for American damage claims. But the affiar cannot be considered to be over. The facts are for the future to tell.