Reagan administration frustration with the military actions of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin broke into the open yesterday with two top U.S. officials, both close friends of President Reagan, offering rare public criticism of the Israeli leader.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in a television interview, essentially accused Begin of twice undermining U.S. efforts to negotiate the removal of Syrian antiair craft missiles from Lebanon, of showing a lackk of moderation in cross-border battles with Palestinians in Lebanon and of having too little respect for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
At a White House news briefing later, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes made it clear that Weinberger was speaking for the administration. Weinberger, Speaks said, "very aptly described our position with regard to both parties" in the Middle East and the need for a deescalation of the violence and a cease-fire.
Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark, in a breakfast meeting with reporters, described the U.S. attitude toward Begin as one of "disappointment and maybe some embarrassment."
He said this was brought about especially by Begin's decision to bomb Palestinian targets in heavily populated sections of Beirut last week, shortly after a special State Department emissary flew to Jerusalem to try to work out other disputes with Begin over the suspension of deliveries of F16 jet fighter bombers.
Those deliveries have been suspended, pending a review to determine if U.S. arms export laws were violated, since June, when Israeli warplanes struck an Iraqi nuclear reactor where Begin alleged that the Iraqis were developing a nuclear weapons facility.
Clark said the United States is "doing our utmost to keep our historic commitment" to the security of Israel, and left no doubt that Reagan remains committed to that policy. But, he added, "Begin, without question, is making it difficult to assist Israeli," especially on the F16 question.
Clark pointed out that the broad U.S. responsibolities and commitments to Israel "are not to Begin, but to the nation he represents." Begin, he said, "is not our only friend in the region."
Reagan, Clark said, has "broad, regional" responsibilities throughout thge Middle East, an allusion to U.S. national interests in many moderate Arab countries that are also pained by Begin's action.
Although Clark said he did not think the president's "basic instincts and commitments would change" with respect to Israel, "those commitments need not parallel what Begin feels in terms of those commitments."
Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron spent more than an hour with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. at the State Department yesterday. Evron said he told Haig of Israel's "deep disappointment" about the further suspension of F16 deliveries ordered by Reagan in the aftermath of the Beirut bombing. Evron said the U.S. decision "will de-stabilize the area and create more problems."
He acknowledged that "there is a problem now" in U.S.-Israeli relations and that "it would be incorrect to ignore it. But we believe the basic relationship is sound," and, therefore, the current troubles will be overcome eventually.
Evron said it was "not exactly correct" to interpret the recent Israeli cabinet resolution as a rejection of Reagan's call for a cease-fire in the war raging across the Israel-Lebanon border. Evron said Israel wants a peaceful solution, and that since "we didn't start the attacks, it's not a question of our ceasing them."
Evron and the Israelis, however, have shied away from the term "cease-fire," and speak of "peaceful arrangements," suggesting that they are seeking some broader kind of settlement that would remove the threat of shelling of northern Israel by Palestinians.
"We want to restore the situation to what it is supposed to be," Evron said, "where is no killing of our citizens, no bombing of settlements, no harassment of our country."
State Department spokesman Dean Fischer tended to back up Evron's assertion that Israel had not rejected the call for a cease-fire, yet said he could not shed any light on the question of whether Israel was seeking a braoder settlement. He also stressed that U.S. policy toward Israel has not changed, letting stand the implications by U.S. officials that it was attitudes toward Begin personally that were changing.
The toughest and most specific criticism of Begin came from Weinberger during an interview on ABC TV's "Good Morning, America." Weinberger noted that charge of critics that Begin, since his re-election, has been less compromising and less respectful of American interest in the Middle East, and was asked if this is a concern for the administration.
"I think it has to be," he said, adding that he believes Begin's course "cannot really be described as moderate at this point. It is essential that there be some moderation and some general realization of how volatile the region is and how quickly individual acts of violence . . . or aggression or retaliation . . . can lead to something much more violent."
Weinberger also charged that U.S. special negotiator Philip Habib had twice come "very close" to securing a "very reasonable" set of terms for getting Syrian antiaircraft missiles out of eastern Lebanon in an effort to resolve an earlier crisis. But Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor and then Beirut at crucial times, Weinberger said. "So each of these things has set the whole course back of securing a cease-fire and peace, has set it back quite a ways."
Weinberger made no mention of the intervening Palestinian rocket and artillery attacks on Israeli settlements. Evron said later that he did not want to "get into a public argument with the secretary of defense, but I think he is wrong."
Last month Weinberger came under sharp attack by Begin, who alleged that Weinberger had led the fight for suspension of F16 deliveries and even harsher measures. At that time, it was Weinberger who said Begin was "proceeding on an erroneous assumption."