THE ISRAELI LOBBY is loose! Yes, the Israeli Lobby. It can do awful things. It has unimagined powers. It can sway Congress with a single twist of the arm. It can make leaps of logic with a single bound. Before it, the Saudis with all their money, oil and more money are powerless. Look, up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's the Israeli Lobby -- and it just shot down the AWACS.

Forgive the hyperbole. By all accounts, the vaunted Israeli Lobby can do what no other lobby can. The term has taken on almost mystical connotations -- sinister ones as well. It smacks more of fear than of respect. It is supposed to suggest excessive, almost underhanded influence and the ability to put the whammy on Congress so that it votes in the Israeli, not American, interest.

For instance, in a recent article, the Saudi minister of commerce, Soliman A. Solaim, suggested that the issue in the AWACS controversy was not just the sale of the technologically sophisticated planes themselves, but "the grip of the Israeli lobby on America's ability to act in its own interest." Carl Rowan then took the lobby to task for pushing "Americans into strife over the AWACS," and William F. Buckley Jr. felt compelled to note that Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who is leading the opposition to the AWACS sale, "wears another hat. He is in charge of the Republican Senate Re-election Committee" -- and presumably more interested in contributions than in America's welfare.

The suggestion that the Senate is in the grip of a lobby that is pushing it into taking a stand antithetical to American (but not GOP fund-raising) interests, must come as news to the 50 or so senators who have declared themselves opposed to the sale and have based their arguments primarily on what they think is good for America -- not Israel.

There are, after all, lots of good reasons to oppose the sale. The AWACS represent the latest in American technology and some senators fear that by selling them to the Saudis we risk the danger of the plane falling into the hands of the Russians or their Middle Eastern surrogates. The specter that haunts the Senate is not the Israeli lobby, but Iran. The Saudis like to point to the differences between their country and Iran and between their regime and the late shah's, but the fact remains that the weapons sold to the shah are now in the hands of the ayatollah -- and possibly others.

Whatever the reasons for opposing the sale, they are based primarily on American self-interest. If American and Israeli interests coincide, that is for the Israelis a happy coincidence. It is not proof that the Senate is in the grip of the Israeli lobby or that it is being pushed into taking a certain position.

The Israeli lobby, after all, is not the only game in town. It lobbies like any lobby, better than most, not as good as some (tobacco, for instance). It is well organized, experienced and formidable -- at least that's its reputation. It is powerful, but what it does, others can do and sometimes will do -- the Saudis included.

The AWACS issue is a complicated one. Both sides can make strong arguments, including, of course, the argument that Congress should not force a president to renege on a commitment. But whatever the arguments, they have to be evaluated in terms of what is good for America. Introducing buzzwords like the Israeli Lobby into the debate only obscures the real issues.

At the moment, the United States and Israel have much in common, not the least of which is an antagonistic relationship with the Soviet Union. To a lesser degree, the same is true of Saudi Arabia. It, too, shares interests with the United States and it just could be that the AWACS are an example of one.

This is why the Saudis themselves have erred in raising the specter of the Israeli Lobby. By doing this, they introduce an element that they will not be able to control and that will, in the end, be turned against them. Someday they will triumph over the Israelis in the U.S. Congress and they will find to their chagrin that their victory will not be attributed to mutual interests or the force of their logic or even the the justice of their cause, but to something else -- the Saudi Lobby. Sic Semper bogymen.