One hundred and sixty-one Vermont towns have foreign policies these days. (Their town meetings have adopted a strategic arms limitation policy--a mutual freeze at existing levels.) So perhaps it is natural that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a foreign policy. It has been snippy about an Israeli archaeological exhibit because the exhibit includes artifacts from "disputed" territory.

Gracious. Downtown Tel Aviv is "disputed" territory: Jordan and all other Arab nations except Egypt do not recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state. The artifacts in question (15 percent of the exhibit) are from the Rockefeller Museum in the part of Jerusalem occupied by Israel in 1967 when it captured the West Bank. This "disputed" territory was seized by Jordan in 1948. When Jordan tried to annex it, only two nations acknowledged the act. Jordan lost the land by launching aggression from it all. It is still "disputed" because since 1967 Jordan has refused Israel's standing offer for unconditional negotiations about it.

Soon Jordan may ask the United States to sell it mobile Hawk surface-to- air missiles and F16s. The Reagan administration, without even attaching a political price, such as Jordan's participation in the peace process, may seek congressional permission to do so. If so, there will be three losers: Jordan, the administration and Israel (because the "Israeli lobby" will be blamed for Congress' refusal).

Israel's longest border is with Jordan. The four states on Israel's "eastern front" (Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia) have a tank force (9,000) larger than NATO's. Jordan's publicly expressed excuse for not joining the Yom Kippur war in 1973 was that it had inadequate air defense. Mobile Hawks (together with the SAM- 8s Jordan is buying from the Soviets) would remove the reason for restraint.

Mobile Hawks in western Jordan would be within range of four of Israel's six air fields, and Jerusalem. In a period of high tension, any Israeli government might reasonably feel duty-bound to order preemptive disarming strikes against mobile Hawks, even though such strikes might guarantee Jordanian involvement in a war. Otherwise, Israel might be without its shield--its air force. This is especially crucial because, when Israel leaves the Sinai next month, it will lose a crucial airfield, and will radically contract its air space.

Appearing on ABC, Ariel Sharon, Israel's defense minister, argued against the sale of Hawks by whipping out a map to demonstrate that "Israel is a tiny, small country." Off camera, someone dryly remarked that Sharon had given a punchy lead for the evening news: "ABC has learned from a reliable source that Israel is a tiny, small country." Israel, which is not a tiny, small smoothie, has a penchant for putting bad faces on even good cases, and for being tiresomely didactic.

But foreign policy is not a beauty contest; aesthetic criteria are irrelevant. What are relevant are fine--increasingly, frighteningly fine--calibrations of military balance. U.S. arms sales are subverting the U.S. commitment to maintain the Israeli military's "qualitative edge."

Jordan needs U.S. military assistance, and especially deserves compensation for the inadequate U.S. response to Jordan's urgent request for aid during a crisis with Syria in 1980. Israel can live with the immobile Hawks Jordan has, and could live with Jordan having the F5g, the plane the administration allowed Peking to veto from arms sales to Taiwan. But the sale of mobile Hawks and F16s would further encourage the illusion that a war against Israel is winnable. The administration's itch to sell the finest U.S. technology can transform that illusion into fact.

Candidate Reagan promised to restore the U.S. reputation for reliability. But three times in his first year the U.S. government broke written agreements with Israel--selling Saudi Arabia F15 enhancements, delaying delivery of Israel's F15s and F16s, and unilaterally suspending, without proper notice, the memorandum of understanding. This, too, emboldens Israel's enemies.

Most of the arguments used to justify the AWACS--principally, arguments concerning the strategic helpfulness of the Saudi regime and the importance of defending Saudi oil fields --should not be persuasive, and were primarily covers for avarice of the U.S. corporations that comprise the "Saudi lobby." Certainly those arguments cannot be recycled on Jordan's behalf.

The "Saudi lobby" defeated the "Israeli lobby" in the AWACS controversy, but a fight over arms for Jordan may excite new nonsense about that irresistible force, the "Israeli lobby." That phrase denotes those of us who generally support Israel, for two reasons: Israel generally has justice on its side, and--most important--support for Israel serves U.S. strategic interests.

Jews, too, often are confused about the composition of the "Israeli lobby." Seven years ago, when speaking at a synagogue and explaining my support for Israel, I mentioned that I had never before been in a synagogue. A matron exclaimed: "What a terrible thing to hear from a nice Jewish boy!"