THE WHOLE process of the Israeli reaction to the Beirut massacre is a tribute to the vitality of democracy in Israel and to the country's moral character. In few other places would public opinion have risen as instantly and furiously as it did over the slaughter of 400 Palestinian refugees--though Israelis were not the perpetrators, though it could be confidently expected that the actual perpetrators, Lebanese, would not be held accountable by their countrymen, though the prospect of Israelis challenging the Israeli government and army at a crisis time was bound to carry its dangers. Where else would an initially resistant government, one that could have had few illusions about the results, have responded as quickly and forthrightly to the demand for an impartial inquiry?

Now the inquiry report is in, and it is stunning. It explicitly accepts as a standard for official behavior the supporting of public morality at a high level. It defines that standard in the Beirut circumstances as "the duty of the occupier . . . to do all it can to ensure the public's well-being and security," and finds that Israel did not meet it. It applies that standard unflinchingly to the highest officials, starting with the prime minister, who is rebuked for "indifference." It applies it, moreover, with a scrupulous, credibility-building care to the varieties of individual responsibility. 2 Few Israelis can expect, however, that the matter of the inquiry ends with a celebration of their honesty and capacity for self-criticism. Already torn, the country has entered an intense political crisis. The question goes beyond those officials, including Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, whose departure in disgrace is recommended. Has the whole Begin government been so discredited that it must let the Israeli people make a new choice of leaders? Given the current international circumstances, such a choice could affect the fate of the nation for decades to come.

Clearly, the Israelis deserve some time to sort themselves out. But Israel's ordeal is not its "internal" affair, as the president, meaning well, said yesterday. The decisions Israelis will now have to make are so important to others that it is foolish to say that they will be relieved of all outside advice and pressure for the duration.

Before the inquiry, the need existed to start withdrawing from Lebanon and to meet Palestinian nationalism half way, and the need is still there. The inquiry reminds Americans of the values they share with Israelis--no small contribution to the bond between the nations. Israel's ordeal, however, will go on.