Menachem Begin invites us to discuss whether a country believing that its vital interests are imperiled should wait for the blade to fall and, specifically, whether an "enemy's" nuclear weapon would constitute the sort of threat justifying any cost or risk to remove. This is the Begin question.

But it is, I believe, the wrong question, or the secondary question, though it comes naturally to many Israelis, and not only them. To give it political and moral rank is to be enfolded by the fateful web of passion and policy that Begin has spun in his four-year term.

Of course, a country feeling that it faces an overwhelming threat to its supreme interests will act, if it has an ounce of will remaining. The real question for Israel, however, is not whether it will act in straights that are or that threatened to become desperate, but whether it will do everything it can to keep out of such a fix and whether, once in one, it will do what it must go get out. This question Begin rushes by.

What needs to be explained first of all is why Israel finds itself in circumstances where it feels so endangered, so isolated, so bereft of friends and so devoid of alternatives that its lone recourse is an action as extreme and fraught with unpredictable consequences as the strike.

Begin's explanation flows, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, from a kind of historical or even cosmic anti-Semitism that compels Israelis to be ever vigilant and self-reliant and ever leery of being trapped by conventional self-limiting rules, lest Israel's rights or its very survival be called into doubt. The world's reluctance to accept his judgment of the Palestinians is all the evidence he requires to validate this view. Criticism of the raid is merely icing on the cake.

No student of history, and certainly few Jews, will dismiss Begin's evocation of anti-Semitism out of hand. But a great many people, and I among them, reject it as an acceptable basis for Israeli policy. One does not have to belive that the world has been cured of anti-Semitism to challenge a view that leads Israel, a small, exposed and dependent country, to act as a law unto itself and thus to aggravate the very uncertainty it craves to assuage.

For there is another, simpler, less ominous explanation, though one harder in a way for Israelis to handle, for Israel's virtually unbearable condition of loneliness. It is that Israel has yet to find in itself the will to say that if and as the Palestinians accept its national claims -- which they have not yet done -- it will accept theirs. Self-determination is the century's most universally acclaimed right, and the Israelis, insisting on it and already enjoying it for themselves, deny it to the people whose destiny is most closely linked to their own. Begin would deny it even if the Palestians completely flip-flpped and signed on the dotted line.

It follows that Israel will be served better by a policy of gradual stuttering accommodation to Palestianian nationalism -- or by a posture of accommodation that put a burden of meeting Israel halfway on Palestianians -- than by the Begin policy of building a Greater Israel.True, if the Palestian question were resolved, Israel would be left in an environment of considerable peril and instability. But that's life in the Middle East. It sure beats the threat of extinction Israel believes it faces now.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of he Begin policy is that it has blurred Israel's line between self-defense and adventurism. It should be obvious that Israel, facing hostility on all borders but one, has a special need not to have a shadow thrown over the legitimacy of steps it takes in its defense. In the West Bank, in Lebanon and now in Iraq, however, Begin has compromised the respects that sustains Israel in both its interior morale and its international standing. He has made it easy for Israel's fair-weather friends to look the other way, and he has made it hard for its single last foul-weather friend, this country, to stand confidently at its side.

Begin's great courage and sense of history betray him. He says with grim pride that Israel will, if it must, stand alone. But his policies reinforce Israel's aloneness. They do so at a time when -- witness Iraq -- its foes increasingly have the wealth, technology and patronage to become an ever-greater military threat, thus tightening the pressure on Israel to preempt or to await on ultimate showdown alone.

The sticking point is whether the Palestinian side would welcome an Israeli initiative for accommodation or exploit it as a sign of weakness. This is the great anxiety, which I hear in many places, starting at the breakfast table. I happen to think that, with help from their friends, Palestians would reach out to take a tentative Israeli hand. But I realize that the hunches of outsiders cut no ice in Israel, and the Israelis have to go at it their own way. Begin, I fear, will never do it. Shimon Peres, with the right kind of support from us Americans, just might.