The Reagan administration sought yesterday to reassure Israel that Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s move to reshuffle U.S. priorities in the Mideast by viewing policy aims against the "backdrop of increasing Soviet intervention" does not mean a lessening of concern for Israel's security.
The occasion was a call on President Reagan by Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Afterward, Haig appeared before reporters, with Shamir at his side, to emphasize strongly the administration's intention to weigh carefully Israeli anxiety about the Middle East arms balance and to seek further progress in the stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks.
However, for all their warmth, Haig's remarks did not change the fact that Shamir is returning home without having achieved the two main goals sought by his government -- a new American initiative to revive the Mideast peace process and reversal by the administration of its all-but-final decision to sell Saudi Arabia sophisticated additional equipment for the F15 jet fighters it has ordered from the United States.
In fact, the State Department almost seemed to be underscoring his lack of success when it announced Monday that top priority in the Middle East will be given to halting the "deteriorating position of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union" rather than pressing ahead immediately with efforts to resume the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestine self-rule.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government badly wants to get the autonomy talks going again as an aid in its uphill battle for reelection later this year. As a result, Haig's lukewarm attitude toward giving a U.S. push to the effort is certain to be a matter of keen disappointment to Begin.
For the reason, senior White House officials reportedly felt that the timing and wording of Monday's State Department pronouncement had the effect of creating what one source called "needless fears" by Israel about U.S. intentions. In order to assuage the Israelis, the sources added, it was decided to have Haig appear with Shamir before reporters at the White House to clarify the intent of administration policy.
The secretary dutifully did his part by pledging allegiance to continuing the Camp David peace process and said that it "will be dealt with promptly and early on." He added, "I would anticipate that the process itself would not be too long in the resumption."
The actuality, though, is that administration policy makers are known to feel that Begin's domestic political troubles and Egyptian reticence make a resumption of the autonomy talks unlikely before the Israeli elections.For that reason, the administration feels it can invest its effort most profitably during the next few months in trying to arrest what its sees as increasing Soviet influence in the region.
Haig said yesterday that "these strategic realities reinforce the peace process . . . and they must be viewed against the backdrop of increasing Soviet interventionism in the area."
On the saudi jet question, the Israelis are understood to expect that, despite their objections, the administration will announce its decision to go ahead with the sale within the next few days. However, the administration also reportedly went to great lengths privately assure Shamir that it will take steps, probably through arranging additional armaments for Israel, that Israeli security will not be harmed by any increases in the range and fire-power of the Saudi jets.