Prime Minister Menachem Begin is to arrive here Tuesday for talks that Reagan administration officials hope will ease the strains in U.S.-Israeli relations and help move Mideast policy beyond a shaky status quo toward progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Begin's three-day visit comes one month after a similar trip by America's other major Middle Eastern ally, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It marks the first opportunity for the Israeli leader and President Reagan to take each other's measure and see whether they can replace the disagreements of recent months with a more harmonious working relationship.
These disagreements, prompted by Israel's provocative air strikes against Iraq and Lebanon, forced Reagan to temporarily hold up shipment of F16 fighter-bombers to Israel. Although that dispute now has been set aside, relations remain sorely troubled by Israel's bitter opposition to the planned U.S. sale of an $8.5 billion package of advanced radar planes and jet fighter enhancements to Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, while Begin's all-out campaign to induce Israel's supporters in Congress to block the Saudi sale will cast an ominious cloud over his visit, U.S. officials insist that Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. believe it still is possible to work with Begin in pursuit of U.S. diplomatic and strategic goals in the Middle East.
Specifically, these officials say, the hope is that, as Begin and Reagan get to know each other over the next few days, the president will be able to communicate the strong sympathy and support that aides say he has felt toward Israel since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.
Even if he succeeds, no one in the administration is naive enough to believe that Begin can be diverted from his opposition to the Saudi arms deal. But, the officials add, if a positive chemistry does develop between the two leaders, there is a hope that Begin will be "a sufficiently polite guest" to keep his criticisms of the Saudi sale relatively muted and not use his presence here as a springboard for taking the Israeli case directly to the American people.
In addition, the officials point out, Begin's visit could prove of key importance to progress on another of the high-priority problems clogging the Mideast agenda: the long-deadlocked Egyptian-Israeli effort under the Camp David accords to find a formula granting some form of self-government to the Palestinian inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Following an Aug. 26 summit meeting, Begin and Sadat announced that the autonomy talks, in recess for more than a year, will be resumed at a Sept. 23-24 ministerial session in Egypt. The announcement came as a surprise to the United States, which also is a party to the negotiations; but U.S. officials since have pronounced it a "pleasant surprise" that could open the way to resolution of the thorniest issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For that reason, U.S. officials say, Reagan and Haig regard the renewed autonomy talks as potentially the most fruitful subject that will come up during the Begin visit.
The administration, the officials added, is especially interested in learning details of how far Begin and Sadat got in their private discussion of the autonomy issue and whether the new talks show promise of breaking the deadlock.
That information, they said, will be used by Reagan to decide whether the United States should make a big new push on the autonomy question at this time--one that might include reactivating the high-level special Mideast negotiator position used by former president Carter--or whether to keep U.S. participation at a low-key, low-profile level for the time being.
On the surface, the outlook for any dramatic breakthroughs in the autonomy talks is not promising. The recent Israeli elections saw Begin narrowly retain his grip on the prime minister's office by courting support from forces with a hard-line approach to the autonomy question, and the expectation is that he will remain unwilling to make the kind of concessions about Palestinian self-rule that would be acceptable to Sadat or the Arab world in general.
In fact, during his visit here last month, Sadat appeared to indicate that the gulf between Egypt and Israel on autonomy is wider than ever.
Among other things, he called for the United States to open contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization, an idea that is anathema to Israel and that was promptly rejected by the administration on the grounds that it would break long-standing American commitments to Israel.
The administration's action was indicative of the curious up-and-down course that relations between Washington and Jerusalem have followed since Reagan took office in January.
Initially, the Israelis, who had come to openly mistrust Carter, welcomed Reagan's election on the theory that his hard-line anti-communist attitudes would cause him to place a high premium on Israel's position as a reliable pro-western bastion in the Middle East.
To that end, the Israelis endorsed Haig's ideas about a "strategic consensus" tying friendly countries of the region in a loose alliance against Soviet encroachment.
To show their desire to get along with the new administration, the Israelis even agreed tentatively to hold still for the sale of jet enhancements to Saudi Arabia. They changed to outright opposition only after it became known that the administration planned to include the radar planes, known as AWACS, in the sale.
However, as time went along, it became clear that the Reagan administration regarded Begin as "overly hard-line" in his approach to Mideast problems and believed, based on its political assessments, that he would lose the Israeli elections last summer.
As a result, Washington adopted a policy of holding Begin at arms length and temporizing with Mideast issues until the elections replaced him with someone U.S. officials hoped would be more flexible.
That strategy was thwarted when Begin proved to be a ruthless political fighter who rebuilt his sagging domestic standing with his forays against Palestinian guerrillas and Syrian forces in neigboring Lebanon and his bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
These moves caused great consternation in Washington and sharp tensions between the two governments. But, despite the strains, the net effect was that Begin forced the United States into helping him win reelection.
His confrontation with the Syrians in Lebanon prompted Reagan to send a special mediator to the area to work out a ceasefire, which redounded to Begin's credit at home.
Even the delay in F16 deliveries proved to be a wrist slap that made Begin look like a tough leader who could defy the United States and get away with it when it appeared to be in his country's interest.
For a time, the tensions created by these incidents caused a lot of talk in administration circles about making a distinction between America's friendship for Israel as a nation and its disapproval of Begin's government. But, as U.S. officials privately concede, such talk has no meaning in the real world of international relations.
As prime minister, Begin represents the Israeli government and nation, these officials say candidly, and the Reagan administration, whatever its original preferences, has no choice other than to try to reach a working accommodation.
[Most American Jews believe the aggressive Begin policies have eroded American support for Israel, according to a NEWSWEEK poll made public yesterday. Fifty-three percent took that view, while 34 percent thought Begin's policies were not hurting U.S. support for Israel. The Jewish respondents also said 3-to-1 that Begin should reassess his opposition to talks with te PLO if it recognizes Israel's right to exist.]