Along with the kibbutz and the Jaffa orange, the proud female soldier has long stood as a symbol for Israel. In reality, however, women have been relegated to less than heroic military roles - making coffee and filling out forms.

Now female members of parliament are fighting for passage of a law allowing women to serve in combat units."The era when people decided what is good and bad for women is over," said Naomi Hazan, who drafted the legislation more than a year ago.

She cited a "breakthrough" decision by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last week to establish a ministerial committee, headed by one of two women in his Cabinet, to consider the possibility.

Still, Rabin spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said the prime minister opposes allowing women in com-bat.

"What happens if a woman falls into captivity? Who will be responsible for what happens to her?" Rabin was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as telling his Cabinet last week.

The bill's cosponsor, Yael Dayan, dismissed that argument as "total nonsense."

"I think men being captured is just as bad," said Dayan, daughter of the late Israeli war hero and defense minister, Moshe Dayan.

"Does a woman hurt more than a man? It's terrible when anyone is captured," Dayan said.

Dayan said that while most women may have difficulty meeting the rigors of infantry training, there was no reason for women not to be pilots.

Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger disagrees. He told the Supreme Court last month that women did not serve long enough to justify their taking the pilots' course, one of the longest and most expensive in the military.

Bodinger told the court, which is considering the demand of 23-year-old aeronautics student Alice Miller to be allowed into the air force, that maternity could cut short service or make it difficult to maintain the necessary fitness level.

His argument reflected the uphill struggle for female aspiring soldiers in a society where, despite notable exceptions like former Prime Minister Golda Meir, traditional gender roles persist.

Women are drafted for 22 months, while men serve 36. Women are authorized to serve in the reserves until age 38, though few are ever called up. Men often serve up to a month a year until age 54.

Reflecting the frayed nerves over the issue, the army recently announced it would shorten women's tours of duty to 19 months, only to reverse itself within weeks, insisting it considers women invaluable to national defense.

Military roles were set early in Israel's history when David Ben Gurion, the country's founder and first premier, decided women should avoid "roles that will not sit well with motherhood."

While in recent years some women have served as tank instructors, usually they are assigned secretarial or support roles in the military.

The debate sank to ignoble depths last month when a senior armored corps officer told high school students that historically men have been warriors and women prostitutes.

The army reprimanded Col. Gershon Hacohen, and he wrote an apology terming his comments "superfluous and wrong."

But critics said the statements reflected the widespread unspoken feeling in the army that women soldiers are not needed.

Brig. Gen. Yisraela Oron, head of the Women's Corps, said women's military service should continue because Israeli society still stigmatizes those without military experience.

But the cavalier attitude towards women in combat was evident when Miller, the aeronautics student, asked President Ezer Weizman, a former air force chief, to help her cause.

In a telephone call responding to her letter, Weizman jokingly suggested she seek her future elsewhere, saying, "Listen, young lady, have you ever seen a young man darn socks?"