Leading Israeli newspapers yesterday called on the government to reassess its policies after the sharp and open confrontation in Washington between President Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
An uneasy sense that something fundemental is going seriously wrong pervaded the Israeli capital, affecting politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
The overwhelming concern is the now widespread view here that Israel's relations with its most crucialally, the United States, have sunk to the lowest point in this young country's history.
Late yesterday, opposition Labor Party member of parliament Yosef Sarid submitted an urgent motion calling for parliamentary debate on what he called the failure of Begin's visit and the escalating confrontation with the United States and the diminishing chances for peace.
There is growing second guessing here about the aftermath of Israel's massive military retatiliation against Lebanon for terrorist attacks launched from there. There is also concern about Egyption President Anwar Sadat's decaying Middle East peace initiative.
Perhaps most important, there is growing criticism here of Begin and questioning about whether, as one politician put it, "he is psychologically and intellectually up to seizing the moment" which many people believe is a critical one for Israel.
Yesterday, Jews celebrated Purim, traditionally one of the most festive holy days of the year. One journalist, however, said the festivities were "sort of marred, more somber." He said people were depressed, because "Carter has swept the floor with Begin."
The Jerusalem government has had run-ins with the Carter White House before, including a serious tangle a year ago on proposals for a Middle East settlement with former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
But now it is "a very serious crisis," said Moshe Shahal, chairman of the opposition faction in the Israeli parliament, "because for the first time in a very major problem the differences are so deep."
And as the independent newspaper Mariv put it yesterday, "The situation today is different - and the difference is to Israel's detriment - because in the meantime Israel's standing has eroded among American public opinion and in both houses of Congress."
The trade union newspaper Davar charged the Begin government with alition of Israel's traditional friends in the United States and urged it "to reassess the government's policy toward United States, toward negotiations with Egypt and to agree to the application of U.N. Resolution 242 on all fronts - including Judea and Samaria," as Israel calls the occupied West Bank of the Jordon River.
The dilemma for Israel is that while it is under unprecedented oressyre from all quarters, there is unanimity that Israel's security needs come first and that many proposals, even by basically friendly goverments, go too far for a large number of Israelis.
"The question is what can be done to reverse this decline" in Israel's international relations. The English-language Jerusalem Post asked.
"Certainly it should not be sought by submitting to American demands which involve unacceptable risks to Israel's security. But neither can it be brought about by tactical inflexibility and obtuseness such as that displayed by the Begin government in the past few months. The time has come," the paper warned, "to rethink our positions rather than dig in defiantly."
Begin returns here today and "it's our responsibility not to criticize the government while he is in the U.S. "said opposition leader Shahal. But there is going to be a reaction, he contended, even within the ruling coalition itself that conceivably could bring a change in the government.
"We can't afford to close the talks with Sadat and - without forgetting the things that Carter says that are unacceptable to us - to have such major differences with the U.S. We don't think the prime minister can psychologically manage these things. I'm certain of that," he siad. "And there are also not a few members of the coalition parties who think the same way."
Begin, 64, is an old warrior - an East European Jew scarred by both Nazi and Soviet persecutions in Europe who later became the leader of the radical guerrilla band in Palestine trying to free the state from British occupiers late in the 1940s. This back-ground has led toa spreading discussion both within Israel and outside the country of whether the hard-line prime minister is the right man to deal with the flood of new pressures and possible opportunities that must be dealt with and call for compromise.
In recent months, Begin's popularity has begun to slip. But in the aftermath of a bloody raid by Palestinian terrorists that killed 35 civilians and wounded twice that number two weeks ago, Begin's tough vow to respond met with strong public support. The response was Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon.
A scathing attack on Begin by Meir Merhav in yesterday's Jerusalem Post, however, called the dimensions of Israel's response one more sign "of the reality that Begin seems, increasingly, unable to grasp."
"Never before," Merhav wrote, "has an Israeli prime minister had at his disposal such a finely honed instrument of policy as the army of today. And never before has this been used so ineptly as now. Never before have gut reactions been so recklessly substituted for calculating statesmanship, and potential political assets . . . so rapidly converted into political as well as military liabilities as by the rash action in Lebanon - however efficient it may have been from the view-point of military technique."
Merhav argued that rather than confronting President Carter with this flagrant proof of the dangers of a PLO state on the West Bank within just a few miles of Israel's heartland, Begin suceeded in shifting world attention from what the Palestinians did to Israel's action.
In effect, the Israeli Army simply reaffirmed how overwhelmingly powerful Israel is.
"The Israeli juggernaut that over-ran southern Lebanon almost at will is a demonstration of how insignificant a real danger to Israel the PLO is," he said.
Merhar contends that it was known before the invasion that no significant PLO forces were left in southern Lebanon because there were ample signs for several days that Israel was preparing a heavy attack.
"The bitter truth seems to be that Begin, who is no doubt as much concerned for Israel's security as anyone else, nevertheless uses the security argument as a partial cloak for his much more deep-seated aspirations to hold on to Judea and Samaria as an integral part of the biblical fatherland," Merhar wrote. Because the outside world and many Israelis reject this claim, however, he feels Begin "runs the danger of having our legitimate security claims thrown out as well."
Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, returning here last night a day ahead of Begin, said at the airport that while the disputes with the White House are not too many in number, "the fact is that we do not see eye-to-eye on some essential questions . . . And some parts of what the Americans asked us to take up are not acceptable to us,"
"If the report that we had from the Americans about the great sincerity and will of Egypt to go [with the peace talks] is correct, if both sides want it, as I'm sure we do, then I'm sure there will be a way found to overcome the problem."
Dayan said "the point is not that we do not agree about relations between the U.S. and Israel, but the question is the disagreement between Israel and Egypt and what should the Israeli attitude be.