While concerned by rapid escalation of the counterattack on Jimmy Carter's Mideast peace plan by the American Jewish community, high administration officials privately warn that Israel's political allies here fail to understand how committed the President really is to his plan.
"They're trying to pressure us in the same old way," a high official told us, "but the ground rules have changed and we're not going to buckle."
Accordingly, the stage is being set for a confrontation of truly awesome scope, in which each side is well enough armed to do heavy damage to the other - but perhaps not powerful enough to impose its will. A warning of just such dangerous confrontation in the immediate future will probably be conveyed to President Carter in the White House this week, when he receives the highest level of American Jewish leadership - a committee representing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
The Carter White House mood is somewhat reminiscent of the Eisenhower White House mood in those days of early 1957, after Israel's first preemptive conquest of the Sinai Peninsula in secret consort with the British and French. Despite threates of political retaliation from top Democrats in Congress - led by then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson - Eisenhower's prestige was sufficient to compel Israel to withdraw completely.
But today, except for a territorial analogy, the political climate is different. Israel is by far the strongest military state in the Mideast and the pro-Israel lobby here is much better organized. Far worse, there is not much sign of any change in the real attitude of Menachem Begin, the new prime minister of Israel, despite one signal after another from the White House and State Department.
For weeks, the Carter administration has counted on the clarity of the principal elements of the President's settlement plan to do one of two things: Win over the support of at least an important part of the American Jewish leadership, or modify the position (seen here as intolerably harsh) of Prime Minister Begin that the West Bank - populated by 600,000 Palestinian Arabs - belongs to Israel.
With Begin's visit only about two weeks off, officials here have grown forlorn over his inflexibility, and the record appears to support them. For example, on June 26, the authoritative Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Begin told the Zionist General Council in Jerusalem that Israel had "a good chance" to hang on to the West Bank and to block any Palestinian state in its debate with the American administration.
The next day Moshe Dayan, the maverick politician named by Begin as foreign minister, was reported by a leading Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, as having drafted a new Isaeli "peace" plan based on Israel's "permanent" retention of the West Bank and carefully phased withdrawals from the Golan and the Sinai.
While Israel's new leadership desperately tries to devise new formulas to compromise Begin's stand on the West Bank with Carter's insistence that Israel withdraw, Israel's allies here are mobilizing American political opinion. What concerns administration leaders is their perception that the tactics used to do this fail to show an appreciation of how serious the President is and how different U.S.-Israeli politics of 1977 are from earlier times of stress.
One top official who shares the concern is Vice President Mondale, designated the Mideast point may by Carter. Others who agree are high in the National Security Council and the State Department.
These officials resent the effort being made to split the Oval Office from the State Department or the President from National Security Adviser Zbiginew Brzezinski.
They also resent Israeli complaints that Carter is making exorbitant demands on Israel - but none on the Arabs. This, too, reflects the opinion of Mondale. Mondale told Dr. Joseph Sternstein, president of the Zionist Organization (and a member of the Conference of Presidents), last week that Carter has spent hours defining with Arab leaders precise ways to fashion "peaceful conditions" between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
With Israel withdrawal always conditioned on true peace, the elements of peace insisted on by the President include recognized sovereignty of Israel diplomatic exchange, trade and cultural relations.
"The Arabs haven't yet said no to the President despite their public rhetoric," one presidential adviser told us, "and this President is not going to accept no from Israel."