The Reagan administration, seeking to avoid a bitter political and diplomatic battle over its planned sale of sophisticated radar surveillance plane to Saudi Arabia, tried yesterday to reassure Israel that it will consider meeting "any needs" that the Saudi deal poses for Israeli security.
The administration's efforts initially drew only an angry Israeli call for reconsideration of the sale and a largely adverse congressional reaction that prompted Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) to concede that, at present, it would be difficult to prevent Congress from vetoing the Saudi arms package.
Baker, who recently visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, met with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. late yesterday and said afterward that, in reference to the looming congressional fight, he had told Haig: "As of now, the matter is still to be won or lost."
Baker refused to spell out his views until after a scheduled meeting with President Reagan today. But Baker hinted strongly that he will caution that the package not be forwarded for congressional consideration without a lengthy delay to allow for detailed consultations with Congress and possible changes in the package to make it more palatable to Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill.
The most controversial element in the package involves the proposed sale of five AWACS radar reconnaissance planes, which the Israelis contend will give the Saudis the ability to collect vital intelligence about Israeli defenses and pass it to Israel's enemies in the Arab world.
On Tuesday, the administration announced it is going ahead with plans to include th Airborne Warning and Control System planes in a package of equipment to improve the offensive capability of 62 U.S. F15 jet fighters being sold to Saudi Arabia.
Congress can halt the sale if both House and Senate vote against it by simple majorities within 30 days after the administration formally notifies it of its intention to sell the equipment.
In an effort to assuage congressional concern about the decision, White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said yesterday that it would not have been made if Reagan thought the move would threaten Israel's security.
Asserting there is "absolutely no weakening" of Reagan's resolve to support Israel, Speakes said, "We are fully prepared to consider meeting any need which they perceive."
Similar assurances were offered by State Department spokesman Dean Fischer.
But when Fischer added that "a formal protest" had not been received from the Israeli government, the storm of angry comment from Israel forced the department to issue a statement saying Fischer's comment "may have been misleading" and conceding, "Israeli officials have protested the sale in various conversations with American officials. . . ."
To underscore that point, Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron went to the State Department, as he told reporters afterward, "to get the record straight" and make clear that "there can be no doubt about our profound regret and unreserved opposition to this decision."
In response to questions about whether Israel will ask the United States for compensating defensive systems to guard against the Awacs, Evron replied: "We are not asking for more defensive systems. We are asking for reconsideration of the sale. This would be the best solution and much cheaper for all concerned."
Evron also dismissed the idea that Israel might be reassured if U.S. personnel helped operate the AWACS equipment.
"We were told that although American personnel may operate it, the decision as to where the airplanes will fly, what the missions will be and what will be done with the information collected will be in the hands of the Saudis . . . It is the opinion of our experts that this creates a very grave danger to Israel," Evron said.
Baker, following his meeting with Haig, said a great many elements, including Israeli concerns and U.S. interests in the Mideast, figure in the situation.
What ultimately will happen in Congress, he said, cannot be predicted until the members "know the details of the proposed sale in all of its elements and how they fit together."
He said he is urging the administration to allow a major "input by Congress" into the package as it is finally presented.
Although he would not go into detail, Baker stressed the possibility of seeking "variations in the package" -- an apparent reference to dropping some elements -- that might make it more acceptable to members of Congress now inclined to vote against the sale.