For the fourth time since Ronald Reagan became president, U.S.-Israeli relations have come under severe strain; this time, the administration appears intent on making clear that it no longer will endorse what it regards as unacceptable conduct by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
That, senior U.S. officials say privately, is the message underlying the U.S. action last Friday in suspending the strategic cooperation agreement with Israel in retaliation for its effective annexation of the Golan Heights.
And, these officials add, that message has in no way been altered by the administration's public turning of the other cheek to Begin's unprecedented bitter denunciation of the U.S. move. Reagan's top national security aides--Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III--all reacted to Begin's attack by treating the incident as a dispute between old friends.
However, the officials say, while it is true that the administration would like to see the storm blow over, the bottom line of its position in the current dispute was summarized by Haig's statement Sunday that the United States is determined "not to create an atmosphere in which blank checks are available for the leadership in Israel."
The big imponderable in this situation, the officials concede, is how the fiercely independent Begin will read the message and respond to it. As one put it yesterday:
"We are going on the assumption that once he's had a chance to cool off, he'll realize that without U.S. support he has no place to go and he'll be more sensitive to U.S. interests and more careful about embarrassing the United States in the future. If not, he's going to find that, while we won't abandon Israel in case of real need, no one in Washington is going to lose any sleep over giving him back the strategic cooperation agreement or other things that he wants from us."
The same official admitted that Begin almost certainly will be unwilling to accept that message at first and probably will take the tack that his support in the American-Jewish community and Congress will enable him once again to force Washington to be the first to swerve away from a collision course.
In fact, the official conceded, the administration now believes that its relatively easy-going response to Israel's actions earlier this year--fighting the sale of sophisticated radar planes to Saudi Arabia, bombing the Iraqi reactor outside Baghdad, and then in bombing Beirut--encouraged Begin's government to believe it could make its move on the Golan Heights while Washington was preoccupied with the Polish crisis, and get away with another slap on the wrist.
However, this official and others contended, if the Israelis reasoned in that way, they badly misjudged both the limits of the administration's tolerance and the degree to which their support in this country has been eroded by Begin's conduct.
For example, the officials asserted, the Golan annexation, its timing during the Polish crisis and Begin's vitriolic rhetoric have shocked and embarrassed many of Israel's usually staunch congressional supporters to the point where they are likely to be silent or offer only pro forma defenses of Israel's behavior.
Similarly, while the principal American-Jewish organizations have circled their wagons and issued statements of continuing support for Israel, many of their leaders are known to be privately concerned at what they considered an unnecessary provocation by Begin and are understood to be counseling Jerusalem that it would be wise to cool off the dispute. The same cautionary advice also is understood to have been given by the Israeli embassy here.
So far, however, the signs from Jerusalem are that the Israelis not only are not listening but are continuing to misread Washington's intentions. Washington Post correspondent Willam Claiborne reported yesterday that Israeli officials regard the administration's position that restoring the strategic cooperation accord depends on "the overall situation in the Middle East" as unacceptable linkage to other aspects of Israeli policy.
Such linkage exists, U.S. officials have conceded, to the extent that Washington wants to see Israel make a sincere try at progress in such important elements of the Mideast peace process as the negotiations on Palestinian autonomy. In the same way, Washington has made very clear that it would not want the buildup of military forces in northern Israel to lead to an unprovoked attack on the Palestine Liberation Organization units in southern Lebanon.
However, U.S. officials are known to think that these are not unreasonable demands on Israel but moderate and prudent courses of action that the United States, as Israel's principal ally, has a right to expect of the Begin government.
In fact, U.S. sources have stressed repeatedly, their aim in using the overall Mideast situation as a yardstick was not to set specific performance goals that Israel must meet but to permit maximum flexibility in allowing a return to improved relations. Since the administration concedes privately that it would be politically unrealistic to expect Israel to rescind the Golan annexation, it adopted the "overall-situation" standard so that the strategic cooperation agreement could be revived even if Israel makes only a cosmetic ameliorating gesture about the Golan Heights.
In short, U.S. officials say, the administration wants Israel to undo some of the damage inflicted on the peace process by at least acknowledging that its action regarding the Golan Heights is not necessarily irrevocable. Even more, it wants Israel to pay more attention to the U.S. need to appear as an impartial conciliator in the Mideast conflict and to avoid, except in cases that genuinely affect Israel's security, taking actions that sometimes appear aimed at deliberately sabotaging America's ability to play that role.
Although U.S. officials say they have set no deadlines, the first obvious test of Israel's willingness to comply will come Jan. 5 when the U.N. Security Council considers whether to apply sanctions against Israel over its Golan annexation. It has been taken almost as a truism in diplomatic circles that the United States would veto such a move, but for now U.S. officials are saying only that they want to see how "forthcoming" Israel proves to be before any decisions are made.