The AWACS arms-sale vote in the Senate on Wednesday was the second such major defeat for the vaunted "Israeli lobby" in the last three years, and in yesterday's post-mortems Jewish leaders voiced concern about the shift it reflects in U.S. attitudes toward Israel.
Some acknowledged that President's Reagan case for the sale of the Airborne Warning and Control System planes to Saudi Arabia had been strengthened by two factors that Israel's supporters have not always been eager to address in public: the leverage of Arab oil and the perceived intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
"The administration was able to take advantage of the fact that the current prime minister of Israel isn't as popular in this country as some previous prime ministers have been," said Hyman Bookbinder, veteran lobbyist for the American Jewish Committee.
He added that "in no way should Begin be blamed for the AWACS defeat," noting the entire spectrum of political opinion within Israel had opposed the sale.
As for the impact of Arab oil, Bookbinder noted ruefully that "there was a time we didn't even like to talk about it, because we didn't want to make it any more real than it was. But there is no question that our policy toward Saudi Arabia has been affected by a fear of incurring its wrath on oil prices or supply."
Bookbinder and other Jewish leaders did not view the vote in a totally negative light.
Thomas Dine of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said he was pleased that "we took the high road; we argued the case on its merits." Because the debate trained public attention on the threats to Israel's security posed by the AWACS sale, he said, the Reagan administration would now be more sensitive to those threats and more inclined to shore up its strategic ties to Israel.
"A lot of us are looking for Reagan to start to make nice to Israel," said one Jewish leader who asked not to be identified. But not everyone agreed. Some Jewish leaders said they were worried that the Israeli lobby, having been beaten this year just as it was defeated in 1978, when it opposed the sale of F15s to the Saudis, will remain on the defensive.
The next battleground, some fear, will be over the question of whether the Palestine Liberation Organization should be brought into Middle East peace talks.
In an interview two weeks ago with journalist Trudy Feldman, Reagan raised the possiblity of PLO participation in such talks, although he stated the standard caveat that the organization must first recognize Israel's right to exist.
Jewish leaders also found themselves forced on the the defensive, and angrily so, to respond to strains of anti-Semitism stirred by the debate.
In the days prior to the vote, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) said his mail showed that the AWACS debate had started a "resurgence of anti-Semitism," and Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.) said of his constituents' reaction that: "I have never experienced anything like this, in terms of basic prejudice."
Bookbinder said his organization would conduct an investigation of such hate mail. But while Jewish leaders obviously worry about blatant anti-Semitism, they were just as concerned yesterday about innuendos from high places to the effect that there was something improper, disloyal or at the very least tactically counter-productive for them to articulate such a forceful position on so controversial an issue.
"Our allegiances were called into question in a very ugly way," said Dine, "And once you start unraveling the social fabric with those kinds of appeals, it is very difficult to roll it back up again."
Jewish leaders were especially critical of the Oct. 4 statement by former president Richard M. Nixon, who said that opponents of the sale "have fallen into the trap of forcing members of Congress to choose between Reagan and Begin."
They also were disturbed by a Reagan statement of Oct. 1 that, "It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy." Many Jewish leaders interpreted the remark as a criticism of Israel for meddling in an American public policy debate.
And they criticized unnamed sources in the White House who reportedly put out the story that Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), a leading opponent of the sale, had taken his position out of fear of losing Jewish campaign contributions to Republican senatorial candidates.
Bookbinder said that "I've had it up to here with private warnings -- many of which I'm sure were given with all sincerity -- that if you play too much of a role in this thing, it will lead to a backlash against the Jews."
One senator who changed his mind at the last minute and voted for the sale, William S. Cohen (R-Maine), said his rationale was that it would be better for the Jews to lose than to suffer the consequences of winning.
Nathan Perlmutter, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said yesterday he was "moved by the authenticity of Sen. Cohen's concern," but added: "It would be a long step backward for us to start looking over our shoulders out of fear that our participation in a debate is going to bring anti-Semitism out of the woodwork."
"The only beneficiaries would be anti-Semites," he said. "The losers? Both Jews and the democratic process."
Despite their irritation with some of the tactics of their opponents, many members of the Israeli lobby held their heads high in defeat. "I don't remember an issue in which the Jewish community was better organized, more responsive, more united, more coordinated in its thinking and its processes," Maynard Wishner, president of the American Jewish Committee, said from Israel, where he is participating in a conference.
"I think we won the case on the merits but lost it to the prestige of the presidency," added Dine.
Some traditional foes of the Israeli lobby said it had demonstrated its muscle even in defeat. "This turned out to be a major battle between the president of the United States and a foreign lobby; when you think about it, it's amazing it was that close," said former senator James Abourezk, a longtime critic of the Israel lobby. "Hell, Reagan beats his American opposition a lot easier than that."