However plausibly and soothingly Arab opposition is presented to Western audiences, the very existence of Israel is still viewed by most Arabs as an intolerable affront.

This hostility to Israel is deeply rooted. Virtually the same Arab opposition to Israel that existed in the early part of this century exists today -- a hostility that would extend to any other non-Arab or non-Muslim sovereignty in the area if such were to exist. Even the peace treaty with Egypt, which is often cited as an example to the contrary, has shown disturbing signs of having been regarded by many Egyptians as merely a tactical arrangement to regain the Sinai with no intention of achieving genuine normalization.

But when it comes to actually waging war, there has been a slowly evolving shift in Arab perceptions of Israel's deterrent power. Continuing and strengthening this shift is the key to achieving a sustainable peace between Israel and the Arabs.

In 1948, the Arab states thought they would have no difficulty in wiping out 600,000 Jews on their thin sliver of land. In 1967, that sliver again proved too tempting a target to resist. Nasser moved 100,000 troops into the Sinai and booted out the U.N., proclaiming: "Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel." Similar sentiments echoed from Morocco to the Gulf. Syria and Jordan joined Egypt. But this attempt, too, failed.

The Six-Day War in 1967 immeasurably improved Israel's strategic position. Having failed to persuade King Hussein of Jordan not to enter the war, Israel found that among the fruits of its victory were Judea and Samaria (or the West Bank, as the Jordanians renamed that part of western Palestine that Jordan had seized in 1948). For the first time, Israel's population centers and airfields were removed from the possibility of ground attack. When Syria and Egypt attacked Israel in October 1973, Jordan had to consider whether to join the fray. Faced with the prospect of fighting across the Jordan Valley and up the Israeli-held Samarian and Judean mountains, it chose to sit out that war. But had Jordan retained control of the territory and had it joined the Egyptian-Syrian attack in 1973, Israel might not exist today; Jordanian tanks could have cut the country in two along the 10-mile-wide coastal strip.

Thus, while in 1948 five Arab armies invaded Israel, and in 1967 three Arab armies fought, in 1973 only two Arab states attacked. And in the 1982 campaign against the PLO in Lebanon only one -- Syria -- entered into a limited war with Israel.

This declining number of warring Arab states reflects an underlying reality: peace between Israel and its neighbors depends on Israel's undiminished ability to defend itself and react decisively to any would-be aggressor.

There is nothing surprising about this. It is the classic doctrine of deterrence. It is not the lack of desire that prevents the Soviet Union from attacking the West, but rather the Soviet fear of retaliation. Similarly, what has decreased the likelihood of a joint Arab assault on Israel is not the absence of hostility but the fear of failure.

The recent Israeli victory in Lebanon may obscure, however, a central truth: Israel's current superiority over the Arabs could be transformed overnight into extreme vulnerability if Israel were to lose military control over Judea and Samaria. For Israeli power depends on three main factors: 1) Israel's military strength relative to the Arabs'; 2) the warning time Israel has to mobilize its forces; 3) the minimum space that Israeli forces require in the face of potential threats.

As to the first factor, the Arab arms advantage is mounting steadily against Israel. In the last decade, the Arabs have spent nearly $100 billion on arms and military facilities. Saudi Arabia alone matches Britain in its annual expenditure on its military. Syria now has more tanks than the German army used to invade Russia. Add to this AWACS planes and Sidewinder missiles for Saudi Arabia and potential sales of Hawk missiles, F16s and F20s to Jordan. To be sure, Israel has morale, training and other qualitative advantages over the Arabs. But we are fast reaching a point beyond which Arab quantity translates into quality. The enormous Arab advantage in arms, which Israel cannot possibly match, makes the two remaining factors of Israel's security even more critical.

For Israel, warning time is a pre-condition for survival. Israel needs 48 to 72 hours to mobilize the civilian reservists that make up the bulk of its army. In withdrawing from the Sinai, Israel took upon itself extraordinary risks, but not those that immediately jeopardize its existence. For if the Egyptians were to violate the peace treaty by moving substantial forces in to the Sinai, it would still take them several days to cover the 150 miles from the Suez Canal to the border of Israel. By contrast, the distance from the Jordan River to Jerusalem across Judea is a mere 20 miles. Were this area vacated by Israel, hostile forces could cover this distance in a matter of hours.

A third, irreplaceable component of Israeli deterrence is space and topography. To meet the Arab threat, Israel's army must have the minimum physical space to deploy men and hardware at the outbreak of war. Already squeezed in the existing boundaries, it could not effectively deploy its fighting formations if Judea and Samaria were lopped off. The distance between greater Tel Aviv and the new border would then be exactly one mile. Topographically, the Judean and Samarian mountains dominate the narrow coastal plain in which two-thirds of Israel's population and industry are concentrated, including important airfields, power plants and communication centers. No amount of electronic gadgetry can substitute for the control of artillery positions and armor routes that lead from Jordan to the Mediterranean. Given modern technology and advances in warfare, he who controls the heights of Judea and Samaria controls Israel.

Those who argue that the key to peace is Israel's relinquishing of the West Bank ignore the evidence. The central fact is that the Arabs twice went to war against Israel when it did not possess that very area; and the PLO itself was formed when Judea and Samaria were still under Arab control. Arab military strategy is simple: squeeze Israel into the pre-1967 armistice lines, subjecting it to a state of intolerable vulnerability.

Israel cannot and will not tempt aggression so invitingly. Demilitarization of the West Bank is not an answer. Where hostility is so deeply rooted, arms so readily available and distances so compressed, a "demilitarized zone" is wishful thinking. No country can take such a risk with its national security.

Whatever their differences, nearly everyone in Israel--whether of Likud or Labor, coalition or opposition--agrees that Israel must not relinquish strategic control of Judea and Samaria. Whatever their views on how best to establish a modus vivendi between Arab and Jew in the territories, few question the necessity for continued Israeli military control. To achieve a sustainable peace, Israel must maintain a credible deterrence long enough to effect a lasting change in Arab attitudes.

In those parts of the world where peace is the norm, borders, territories and strategic depth may appear unimportant. In the Middle East they are of decisive importance. Given the specifics of the West Bank, the slogan "territory for peace" is singularly inappropriate: it is precisely Israel's control of this strategic territory that has deterred all-out war and has made eventual peace more likely.