TEL AVIV – In the sunny living room of the Balters' apartment, Minnie is playing solitaire on the couch. Ben, her husband, is outside with some bread soaked in sardine oil for the stray cat who just had kittens. It is the Balters' third generation of stray cats in Israel.

Stray cats, it seems, can spot gentle souls. They home in on the Balters as if by radar, just like the neighbors' children and anybody locked out of his own house at night.

The Balters' house always is open. It always has been, in Freedom, Pa.; in Rochester, N.Y.; and now in Herzlia, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Minnie is small, fair and blue-eyed, with short white-blond hair. She has a laugh – half giggle, half chuckle – that shakes her whole frame and makes everybody around her smile. She has a few lines in her face from worry. Right now, she is worrying about the cat with the new litter, the upstairs neighbor whose child is due – and the security of Israel."

Her talk is mostly of the last of these worries, and her voice has taken on an unfamiliar edge. That laugh, usually so close to the surface, is not even in sniffing distance now. "If they give up the West Bank," she says, looking up from her cats, "it'll mean the death of Israel."

Minnie and Ben married when they were 20. She says they fell in love when they were 11, growing up together in western Pennsylvania's Beaver Valley. Now, in Tel Aviv, approaching their 47th wedding anniversary, they finish each other's sentences and start each other's stories.

Ben is big and loose-framed, with a thousand wrinkles from smiles and a gravelly warm voice made specially for telling bedtime stories to children. He has found and fed the mother cat.

Now he walks in on a discussion of Israel's attack on the Palestinians in Lebanon. His voice, too, seems unfamiliar.

"How do you treat mad dogs?" he asks. "The solution is just to kill as many as you can."

Back in Rochester, nine or 10 years ago, the Balters were known as "peaceniks."  There were couples, among their old circle, who edged the Balters off guest lists because of their early, active, unpopular opposition to the war in Vietnam.

"Like some kind of nutsy Quakers," one of their old friends used to say.

The Balters made trips across the Canadian border to help draft dodgers and deserters who fled north. Ben studied Chinese history. They became an FBI file. They marched,
they met, they petitioned – against the war, against wars, against weapons.

Now, after six years in Herzlia, something deep has changed. The stray animals still come around. The neighbors' children still barge in and clamber onto Ben's lap as if by natural right.

But the Balters cheered when Israeli troops rumbled into southern Lebanon last month. They want the Israeli army in control of the West Bank territory even if it sinks the current peace negotiations with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat.

"Sadat doesn't want peace," Ben says. "He wants everything he couldn't get with war just by saying he wants peace. The Arabs just want the West Bank to use as a foothold to destroy Israel.

"It's not enough to just want peace. You have to think of security."

Security. The word can stop arguments, silence most complaints, explain the inexplicable and justify almost anything.

Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, often is criticized in the West for returning again and again to the litany of security he recites in justification for his stance in the maneuvering toward a Mideast peace.

But Begin's refrain does not seem, here, to be a bargaining trick, as Sadat or Begin's American critics suggest. It is a reflection of a need so palpable here, a value so universal, that it makes the American need for "success" seem mild.

The moment the visitor arrives, sometimes sooner, real or imagined security measures crowd in from every side.

In the Athens airport, a young Israeli navy man, who has been traveling in Scandinavia on vacation, is rushing back to Israel to join his unit in the southern Lebanon operation.

He apologizes for his attire.

"I never used to go in such clothes, dirty and like this" he says, shoving his T-shirt back into a worn pair of bluejeans with an expression of distaste. "But to look like one of the area, it's better. In Europe, there are many terrorists. It's better to look like a hippie, or American; I don't know what."

He is asked where he sees the terrorists.

"All around," he says, "You do not understand. Nobody understands. If you are not living with us and you are not living in the problem, you do not understand."

At Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, a couple of passengers never make it to the runway.

They are picked off for questioning by security guards posted at the top of the airplane steps.

On the ground, the men with machine guns appear – first at the airport, then at the bus stations, offices, hotels and intersections. Foreigners are often disconcerted. Israelis find the military presence comforting.

In the bazaar in Jerusalem's Arab Old City, a visitor and an Israeli are stepping through the jumble of wares and the cacophony of sales. A soldier steps out of a doorway ahead. "C'mon," the Israeli says. "We'll catch up. It's better to be close to him if something starts."

There are Israelis who never have visited the West Bank or Jerusalem's Old City because of their fear of the Arab population.

On the road to Haifa, the northern port, a cab driver insists that his passenger use a seat belt. "This is security," the driver explains. "With me, anything for the security, it's OK."

There is the censor who chops out a piece of a newspaper article because it would "endanger the security of the state of Israel."

The report in question has nothing to do with current troop movements or Israeli military strength, the location of vital installations or plans of the Israeli army.

The chief censor tells a complainant: "For security reasons, I cannot tell you the manner in which the article would endanger the security of Israel."

There are security rooms of pre-stressed concrete, added to the houses. There are guns under thousands of pillows. There are reminders everywhere that Jews, now as ever, are in danger.

At Yad Vashem, the monument and memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, a museum tells in pictures and documents of the horror the Nazis wrought.

There are pictures of corpses, thousands in a ditch; and pictures of soldiers shooting kneeling women; babies in the Warsaw ghetto orphaned and starving to death; men and women twisted and disfigured by "experiments;" trainloads of innocent people on their way to the ovens; boatloads forced to return to death in Germany when America and Britain refused to take them in.

There are people crying in the museum.

There is an old man in a suit and a small-brimmed hat looking at a picture from Dachau. The faces in the picture are dull with pain. The old man in the museum has a look much the same. He bends his head close, to look at each death camp prisoner in turn. He seems to be looking for someone.

Some people have to leave the museum, to shed the weight of the horror, to take a full breath, to feel the sun. In the sunshine on the hill, the noise of traffic is almost a song. The fear and revulsion slowly lift on the breeze. There are young Israelis, safe and at play, somewhere within earshot.

Then again, there is the little sign, tacked on a pillar near the entrance to the hall: "Do Not Touch Suspicious Objects."

"It is funny why we fell in love with Israel. It's hard to understand," says Minnie Balter.

"Our views really haven't changed that much," Ben Balter is saying in his living room in Herzlia. "But we really discovered that we're Yiddish."

It is after a visit to Yad Vashem, and the two are trying to explain how a Jew feels about the safety of Israel. Why it must be safe.

"When you're there and you see it," Balter says, "and you see the people who come into the museum and get hysterical. They see someone in a picture, a friend in the picture being led to the gas chamber...

"Not because they were criminal or killed anybody or stole anything from their neighbors. Just because they were Jews. So you get this neurosis, if you want to call it that, because you know nobody cares too much whether the Jews are secure."

"It's not a neurosis, it's a matter of survival," Minnie Balter interjects. "You should to to the Kenerret (Sea of Galilee) and see where the Syrians on the Golan are. They used to shoot down on the Israelis every day. That's no neurosis. I know what a neurosis is."

"Never again are Jews going to let themselves be slaughtered," Balter says, resuming his thesis and saying:

"It's like when Diane (their daughter) came, I told her there's an expression that her generation doesn't know: 'Es ist schvare tzu zein a yid. It's tough to be a Jew.'

"You see, her generation, growing up in a city like she did, never had the massed anti-Semitism that we had.

"I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where a Jewish kid didn't walk through a Polish or a German neighborhood at night. You know, in Poland when their people didn't have anything to eat, the rulers'd say, 'OK, you can have your fun tonight; go out and kill some Jews and take what you can get.'  It was how they let off steam."

"It's hard to understand if you don't live through it," Mrs. Balter adds.

"The goyim didn't even have to think about this," Ben says. "There's nobody going around killing people because they're Lutherans."

"Or Episcopalians," Minnie says.

"You know, the history of the Jews is that whatever country they were in they've had to run. Every one. Every time," Balter picks up. "You know, you always hear about how it couldn't happen in America. Well what if it did?  I knew people who said it could never happen in Germany. Jews aren't the kind of people who have guns in the States. How many Jewish hunters are there with shotguns and rifles?  How many times have they said, 'I don't know why the Jews didn't defend themselves against Hitler in Germany?'  They couldn't.

"The thing about this place is that it's the one place – the one place – where a Jew can be secure. At least here they can defend themselves. This is the only place they can defend themselves. Physically defend themselves."

"We remember," Mrs. Balter says, thinking of the Holocaust.

"I've been there, to Yad Vashem, at least a half-dozen times," Balter says.

"The memory gets refreshed. And then I read in the papers how Sadat worked with the Nazis and thought Hitler was doing a wonderful job. No way I'm going to trust him. If he wants peace, it's not going to be over the dead bodies of Israelis, which is what he's asking."

"Security does have a kind of primacy on the scale of values in Israel," says Kalman Benyamini, head of the Hebrew University psychological service.

"This is something that people in the States don't face.

"But here, you know, if you see two young men arguing – a rightist and a leftist, let's say – arguing and trying to convince each other with very intellectual arguments, and then one may say, 'But here, we face a problem of the security of the state.'

"Then the other one shuts up.

"There is a limit to the freedom of argumentation," Dr. Benyamini says. He is one of many psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists who have taken up the question of the effect of security values in Israel.

There is general agreement that the drive for security figures prominently in the psychological makeup of most Israelis. There is consensus, it seems, that the drive stems from the constant threat to Israel by the surrounding Arab population and from a heritage of persecution of Jews, particularly among those who immigrated here from Europe and the Arab lands.

But there is no agreement on, and no apparent end to, the phenomena that this drive is supposed to have caused.

Dr. Benyamini can list a few with ease.

"The fact that people perceive things like this is a political factor in itself. When the Arabs see this attitude, it reinforces their belief that the Jews are aggresive and hostile to them. Which, in turn, reinforces their own fears and their own hostility in a kind of vicious cycle," he says.

"Think about what it means for youngsters of high school age, knowing that in three years they are going into the army. It's something that casts its whatever – shadow, light, I don't know – over their lives starting in high school....

"This very perspective, what it does is leads to an attitude: Don't show your emotions; don't show these personal things, because this is what's going to be adaptive as a soldier.

"There is also a lot of conformism, I mean, a lack of individuality among youngsters in general. From a clinical, psychological viewpoint, I would say that the fact that our army is an active army, a needed army, and the fact that our schools are very much oriented to collective effort rather than individual instruction, causes some kind of delay in the identity formation.

"It's only after the army years, sometimes much later, sometimes never, that they can say, 'Hey, I spent my adolescent years as a part of a classroom or part of a peer group; I spent my next years as a part of a tank group or battle formation, Hey, where is me?"

In a new book on Israeli women, and what she contends is the myth of women's equality in Israel, Lesley Hazelton looks for the causes of sexual sterotyping. She finds her answer, at least in part, in security.

"Israelis," she writes, "tend to seek out the security of normality especially in male-female ralationships, since they cannot find it in their national life. Living at peace, without constant national tension, is a generalized and blurred concept scarcely comprehensible to most Israelis; but living as normal a personal life as possible provides a form of compensation."

On the street, security, or the lack thereof, can be invoked to explain almost anything.

A cafe manager in Tel Aviv says it has something to do with the reason Israelis are friendly. "We love each other. We help each other in every way. We have to be this way," he says, "because we may have to fight together."

At a gas station no more than a mile away, the attendant is asked why he is so surly this night. "How long have you been in Israel?" he asks.

"Well, when you'll read the papers every day for a month and you'll see what happens all the time, then you'll come and you can ask me again. How do I know who you are?  You could be anyone. I should kiss you because you want gasoline?"

"There were five cars destroyed in East Jerusalem in the last week or so. There was a soldier shot to death waiting for a ride. Now, there's a Haga man, one of the older Israelis on guard, and there were four or five Arab kids around, and he was scared and he shot one of them. Right in the same place. He's in jail now."

In their apartment, the Balters are ticking off the incidents, listing the reasons for a change of heart, trading comments in a kind of two-person monologue.

"Our landlords are a brother and sister," says Minnie. "The sister's husband was killed in the '67 war and she's left with two children..."

"Irit's brother-in-law," says Ben. "They attacked an airplane. PLO terrorists, Fatah terrorists, I don't know who. They're all the same. He threw his body on a grenade to save the others..."

"That's where Hanna Maron lost her leg…

"The Shermans' son-in-law, he was a prisoner in Egypt in '73…

"When we go to the kibbutz, with the graves from the time...

"At Shamir, where we visit three women. They shot three women when they were working with the bees. One was a non-Jewish volunteer from New Zealand...

"There's more...

"There's got to be more. I don't think we know a family that hasn't got someone..."

"My views as far as peace and the value of human life and what a country should go to war for haven't changed at all," Ben concludes. "But I don't believe you can have peace with somebody who has set out his plan to destroy you. When they say they're going to destroy me, I can't let them."

There is the case of a young Palestinian-American from Michigan State University who was arrested in Israel as a suspected member of a radical Palestinian group because he had been to Libya and had handed out the group's newspaper in Michigan. Ben Balter says he thinks the young man is guilty because the FBI in the United States identified him as a possible terrorist.

"I know, I know; they have a file on me, too. And on Minnie and on you," he says. "But in this particular case, it's different. I know if this guy's got a gun it's aiming at me. This isn't a theoretical thing with me anymore.

"You know, I believe in constitutional rights. But nobody's guaranteed the right to destroy me.

"If he's PLO, he's anti-Israel. If he's PLO, that's their policy. They want to destroy me. If I have to be afraid of him, I want him locked up. That's actually how I feel about it now. It's a personal thing with us, now."