The United States, striving to avoid recriminations that could affect Israel's scheduled withdrawal Sunday from the Sinai Peninsula, reacted to yesterday's bombing of Lebanon with a low-key statement deploring all cease-fire violations, "including violence against Israelis and the Israeli air strikes into Lebanon."
The appeal for restoration of the cease-fire in Lebanon, coupled with the refusal of U.S. officials to go publicly beyond the statement's cautious wording, contrasted starkly with the anger expressed by the Reagan administration last December about Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
Privately, administration sources made no secret yesterday of their dismay and concern at Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's decision to strike at Palestine Liberation Organization positions inside Lebanon.
The sources acknowledged candidly that the United States cannot risk a new confrontation with Begin that could further inflame the Mideast situation and cause potentially irreparable damage to U.S. policy goals in the region.
According to the sources, the most immediate U.S. concern is to avoid giving Israel any pretext for backing away from the scheduled return to Egypt of the last Israeli-occupied portion of the Sinai.
Failure to complete the turnover, agreed to in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, could deal a major blow to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ability to retain power and kill U.S. hopes for giving new impetus to the stalled Camp David peace process.
Senior administration officials had made known that a plan to follow the withdrawal with a major, new push, probably in June, for Egyptian-Israeli agreement on autonomy for Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli-occupied territories. However, that plan would be stillborn if serious new tensions develop in Israeli relations with Egypt and the United States.
In addition, the sources said, the United States is equally anxious to contain damage done by the air strikes to the fragile cease-fire, worked out under U.S. auspices last summer.
For that reason, they added, first priority must be given to persuading Begin to refrain from broadening the crisis by sending troops into southern Lebanon or directly challenging Syrian forces there and preventing the PLO from retaliating. The sources said the United States is using channels at the United Nations and elsewhere to appeal to the PLO not to escalate the fighting.
These considerations, the sources conceded, led the State Department to issue a statement so bland that it seemed almost identical to expressions of concern routinely issued by the department during relatively minor cease-fire infractions.
It said: "There have been a number of actions recently which have threatened or violated the cease-fire, including violence against Israelis and the Israeli air strikes into Lebanon."
It added that the United States "deplores these actions," wants all the parties "to exercise the utmost restraint" and "strongly urges all concerned to respect scrupulously the spirit as well as the terms of the cease-fire."
White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes and State Department spokesman Dean Fischer refused to specify what incidents the United States regards as "violence against Israelis," and they generally turned aside questions by referring reporters to the statement.
Speakes did contend that the Israeli action was not an embarrassment to the United States, despite the presence in Israel of Deputy Secretary of State Walter J. Stoessel Jr. who is seeking to iron out last-minute disputes relating to the withdrawal.
President Reagan, who spoke to reporters briefly before boarding a helicopter for an afternoon of horseback riding, said only, "I can't comment yet, because the situation is too delicate." Fischer said Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was keeping in close touch with the situation, but he added that he did not know if Haig had been in direct touch with Begin.
U.S. officials said privately that Begin appeared to have authorized the air strikes to placate Israeli hard-liners pressing for a full-scale showdown with PLO forces in Lebanon and to divert Israeli anxiety about the withdrawal.
Government use of force to evict diehard Jewish settlers from the territory has heightened such anxiety.
The United States had feared for weeks that Israel would move against Lebanon before the pullout, and dispatch of Stoessel to the Mideast had been intended, in part, to try and restrain Begin.
Prior to yesterday, U.S. officials, while conceding they could not predict anything with certainty, had seemed more optimistic that the Israelis would show restraint. The air attacks appeared to have surprised the administration.