Palestinians have now had their Babi Yar, their Lidice. The Beirut massacre has altered the moral algebra of the Middle East, producing a new symmetry of suffering. Israel's health now depends on turning a feeling face to the world, and internalizing this fact: simply by being the strongest power in the region, Israel is implicated in (which does not mean it is responsible for) the flow of events.

Babi Yar was a German massacre of Russian Jews. Lidice was a Czechoslovakian town where the populace was massacred in reprisal for the assassination of the SS officer, Reinhard Heydrich. The sensibility of this century has been shaped by the sight of such things; the syntax of society has been wrenched out of shape by the flat language -- "eliminate," "liquidate," "final solution," "Judenrein" -- that has been used to denote what the pictures show.

Israel exists not only because of such events in Europe, but also because of pictures of those events. Pictures generated passions to supplement legalisms in the struggle to found Israel as a haven for wandering Jews.

Experience, it is said, enables the world to recognize a mistake when it makes it again. Begin, an experienced man, again seems determined to appear only lawyer-like and truculent in a crisis -- this time in response to what has befallen some wandering Palestinians who, like Jews in Europe 40 years ago, were defenseless in a murderous situation. The language of the Begin government's official statement ("a Lebanese unit . . . caused many casualties") is grotesque. Casualties, indeed.

Because Israel's army is justly famous for competence, it is in danger of being unjustly notorious for complicity in the massacre. The world is in no mood to consider that confusion normally attends military operations and that in Lebanon, the normal quantity of confusion is cubed. Persons who do not understand this will think that whatever happens in an Israeli zone of operations is what Israeli forces intend. The less one knows about history, the more one is apt to regard it as a realm of intentionality.

So it is urgent that Israel make clear -- not least to itself -- the mixture of intentionality (if any), incompetence and innocent inability on Israel's part in events that led up to the massacre.

After the massacre, Israel's government turned a flinty face to the world, rejecting with "contempt" the thought that Israel has some responsibility for the massacre. ("Responsibility" is not a synonym for "complicity.") But in explaining its military operations, Israel took upon itself -- explicitly -- some responsibility for order in Beirut.

Israeli forces were within sound of the massacre, which may have extended over three days. Israel's intelligence service warned the government that a massacre could occur unless Christian extremists were kept away from the Palestinian camps. On Friday morning (killings may have extended from Thursday night to Saturday morning) an experienced Israeli reported to the foreign minister's office rumors that a massacre was under way in the Beirut camps.

Nothing is missing to complete the discomposure of the Begin government, which now has simultaneously an actual Vietnam (an ill-defined commitment) and a potential Watergate (a stench of stonewalling and mendacity). The questions are: what did Israeli officials -- military and civil -- know and when did they know it? And to what extent was ignorance culpable? These must be answered quickly, by an Israeli commission of unimpeachable standing.

If you believe, as I passionately do, that Israel incarnates the response -- the reproach -- of intelligence to animalism, then you expect Israel to show "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." A "decent" respect for opinion does not involve pandering to whatever passions are predominant at the moment. The phrase "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" was not merely a rhetorical flourish by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The phrase underscored the fact that the American Revolution was an act based on principles transcending a dispute between some colonists and a king.

Israel, like the United States, embodies principles with a claim to general validity, including principles of democracy. A democracy becomes corrupted when there is no penalty for failure, or no willingness to acknowledge failure. The essential business of democracy is the locating and enforcing of responsibility.

The vitality of Israel's democracy -- including the civil sense of its military -- is currently questioned. This is, I am confident, unfair, especially to a military that chose to take casualties to avoid civilian casualties in Lebanon. But the Begin government has revealed at least narrowness of mind and littleness of purpose by spurning a call for a national inquiry of the sort held after the 1973 war. If the government cannot be pushed into an honorable inquiry, it will deserve a reproach once spoken by the English theologian Ronald Knox: "The government has turned its back on the people and now has the effrontery to claim that it has the people at its back."