The top ranks of the Reagan administration yesterday sought to use soft answers to turn away Israeli wrath in the flaring dispute over the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
The administration's three senior policy assistants, who appeared on separate television interview programs, stood their ground in strongly opposing last week's surprise Israeli action. But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III all tried to treat the incident as a dispute between friends that would be surmounted as have other disagreements in the past.
"The time has come now for the leadership in both countries to get to work to repair the damage," said Haig.
Moreover, the American officials pointedly turned aside opportunities to reply in kind to the unusually harsh and bitter language from Jerusalem yesterday. "I don't think there is any point in trying to go into and match this kind of vitriol," said Weinberger.
Weinberger and Meese said they were "disappointed" by the Israeli stand. The same word was used last Friday to describe the U.S. reaction to the sudden Israeli annexation measure.
There was no indication of the practical impact of Israel's announcement that it has cancelled the U.S.-Israeli agreement on "strategic cooperation," which was signed only three weeks ago today by Weinberger and his counterpart, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
From the first, the agreement was considered in Washington to be of mostly political and symbolic importance. It was undertaken in large part to reassure and placate Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government after a series of earlier disputes over Israeli air attacks in Lebanon and Iraq and the sale of U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System planes to Saudi Arabia.
The Israeli annexation action last Monday, which a surprised Washington immediately opposed, was declared to be "null and void" by a unanimous vote of the United Nations Security Council Thursday, including the vote of the United States.
On Friday, the State Department announced a set of punitive actions, including suspension of the "strategic cooperation" agreement and cancellation of planned meetings between American and Israeli military officials, in response to the annexation. All this led to the Israeli reaction yesterday.
In explaining the U.S. stand, Haig said on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) that Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights was "a threat to the peace process." He said the United States "had an obligation, the president felt very strongly, not to create an atmosphere in which blank checks are available for the leadership in Israel."
Weinberger, speaking on "This Week with David Brinkley" (ABC, WJLA), put the matter in terms of U.S. credibility in the Middle East. "We cannot secure the peace if we are viewed as only lined up on the side of one participant who has a definite series of views and who executes those views unilaterally without going through the negotiating process."
Weinberger declined to say, as have other senior members of the administration, what the United States will do if Israel does not rescind its annexation by Jan. 5, the deadline for further consideration of the matter by the U.N. Security Council.
State Department officials said Friday that Washington does not expect Israel to revoke the annexation, but has asked for "ameliorating action" by Israel to make clear that the Golan Heights and other territories it occupied in the 1967 war are subject to international negotiation.
A military buildup by Israel last week near its borders with Lebanon and Syria also prompted U.S. concern.
Meese, speaking on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC), provided the most explicit U.S. report of Israeli assurances about the buildup. "They the Israelis indicated that they would not attack or take military action unless they themselves were attacked," said Meese, applying this specifically to Lebanon.
An uncertain aspect of the latest U.S.-Israeli dispute, which has featured the most blunt U.S. retaliatory action and harshest Israeli words of many months, is the attitude of the American Jewish community toward the annexation measure and the U.S. response.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), speaking to a men's club at a Cranston, R.I., synagogue yesterday, called the Golan action a "flagrant diplomatic violation." He received a standing ovation at the end of his address.