French President Francois Mitterrand's visit to Israel, which starts Wednesday, formally marks the end of a passionate chapter in one of contemporary history's more curious diplomatic relationships--the love-hate match between France and the Jewish state.

Designed to signal the end of 15 years of French ostracism of Israel, the trip, for the record, is the first for a French head of state.

But its real importance lies in demonstrating the understanding for Israel that Mitterrand has amassed during a dozen previous sojourns there as a private citizen and a Socialist politician in the opposition.

It is that knowledge--itself spurred initially by a conscience formed during World War II and by the Jewish Holocaust in Europe--that is the major motivating factor in Mitterrand's determination to make good his campaign promise to visit Jerusalem. His writings reflect the constancy of his friendship with Jews and with Israel.

The current Israeli government, however, has not made it easy for Mitterrand. Twice the dates of the visit were postponed as Israeli actions proved to be political embarrassments for Mitterrand--first the destruction of the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor last June followed by the bombing of Beirut in July and then the annexation the Golan Heights in December.

Judging by Mitterrand's own recent remarks--and those of Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy and External Affairs Minister Claude Cheysson--France has not abandoned the conviction that Israel's best interests would be served by peace negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But what Mitterrand has said repeatedly is that France no longer will be in the forefront pushing for a solution that he feels the Israelis and the Arabs must find for themselves. That alone has been enough to anger some Arab leaders.

Mitterrand's attitude represents a massive change of policy not just after 15 years of French pro-Arab activism, but also after the earlier period when France was a major Zionist ally even before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Mitterrand was a junior minister in the Fourth Republic government after World War II that provided transit for European Jews headed clandestinely for the then-troubled British Mandate of Palestine. Arms also were provided in a policy dictated as much by Gaullist desires to take revenge against the British as by any love for Zionism.

Less than a decade later, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and French Socialist premier Guy Mollet founded a de facto alliance that was to last more than a decade and provide Israel with French arms and the know-how to build nuclear weapons.

The cement of that alliance was a common dislike of Arab nationalism that culminated in the ill-fated Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in November 1956.

Bogged down in the Algerian war, the Socialists fell from power, and Charles de Gaulle returned to found the Fifth Republic. As late as June 1961 de Gaulle toasted Ben-Gurion at the Elysee Palace by saying, "I raise my glass to Israel, our friend and our ally."

But after eight years the Algerian war ended in 1962, and de Gaulle increasingly sought to improve France's traditional ties with the Arab world.

The end of close relations with Israel came in June 1967 just before Israel unleashed the Six-Day War against the Arabs. De Gaulle warned visiting Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban not to start hostilities. He predicted that such a course would increase Soviet influence in the Middle East, endanger Western access to Persian Gulf oil and turn the Palestinian problem from a question of refugees into an international issue.

When Israel followed a different course, de Gaulle imposed an arms embargo. He then tightened it when Israeli wreaked vengeance for a Palestinian terror attack by destroying 13 Lebanese commercial airliners at Beirut Airport in December 1968.

Even before that, the relationship was tension-filled. De Gaulle's characterization of the Jews as an "elitist people, sure of themselves and domineering" did not go down well with Israel, or Jews anywhere, especially not in France, where the community is the world's third largest.

Successive French governments under presidents Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d'Estaing moved further into the pro-Arab camp. French public opinion polls, however, consistently showed the French as resolutely pro-Israeli, although often less out of love for Israel than lingering resentment against the Arabs who had humiliated French imperial dreams from Syria to Morocco.

In December 1969 many in France cheered as the Israelis defied the French embargo and made off from their Cherbourg moorings with five gunboats that had been ordered and paid for.

French-Israeli relations took on cold war proportions following of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war as France sought to pay for its massive oil imports by selling arms and other goods to the Arabs.

Diplomatically, France was in the forefront of European efforts to promote the Arab viewpoint, especially that of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

By the spring of 1980 France had succeeded in convincing its European Community partners to sign the Venice Declaration calling for PLO "involvement" in Middle East peace talks and avoiding any mention of the Camp David process.

As the Socialist presidential challenger, Mitterrand was the only major French politician to back Camp David. But since his election last May, Mitterrand and his ministers have, if anything, gone further than their conservative predecessors in defining the Palestinians' rights to a homeland and the PLO's claim to represent them.