The State Department told Congress yesterday that Israel may have violated U.S. arms agreements during the invasion of Lebanon, but gave no indication that it would act to punish Israel by cutting off military supplies, according to congressional sources.
The message to congressional committees was classified as secret, but sources said it followed past practice in stopping short of a finding that Israel violated U.S. arms export law.
The message was criticized by some members of Congress for dodging the issue and remaining silent on a key question of whether Israel used cluster bombs in the invasion. The bombs spew hundreds of pieces of shrapnel, and are regarded as especially lethal in civilian areas.
" The message is not responsive," said Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It reaches no judgment on whether Israel used cluster bombs, and there's no doubt in my mind that they did."
State Department spokesman Dean Fischer said the United States had made "repeated requests" to Israel for information on reports that cluster bombs were used. But no reply has been received, he said.
Zablocki said he wrote to Secretary of State George P. Shultz protesting that the department's letter was late, incomplete and unnecessarily classified as secret.
Despite the congressional irritation, there was no indication of significant sentiment to punish Israel for the suspected violations by cutting off foreign aid appropriations. "I don't think there are any people up here rushing into that," Zablocki said, and other members of Congress agreed.
Israel's alleged misuse of U.S.-supplied equipment frequently has caused friction between the two countries, but usually has been muffled by a general willingness to avoid punishing an ally that is the largest single recipient of U.S. arms aid.
U.S. law provides that weapons sent abroad are to be used for self-defense, regional defense and internal security, and specific uses are spelled out in agreements. The law stipulates that arms sales and credits cannot be continued to any country "in substantial violation" of the agreements.
The president is required to report violations to Congress and to determine if a country has become ineligible. But the law also includes an escape clause authorizing the president to continue arms sales if he finds that terminating them would have a "significant adverse impact" on U.S. security.
Congress also could cut off arms sales to any country simply by refusing to appropriate funds.
White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said President Reagan had reviewed the letter to the congressional committees. Without discussing its contents, Speakes said past practice is to send such letters only if violations are suspected. "If you don't think they did commit violations , you don't send a letter," he added.
It was understood that the message referred obliquely to delicate negotiations under way on a solution to the fighting in Beirut, where Israeli forces have surrounded and shelled positions held by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Special U.S. emissary Philip C. Habib is attempting to negotiate a withdrawal of PLO forces.
According to news reports early in the invasion, cluster bomb fragments were found in the vicinity of a hospital.
Those reports triggered the congressional concern and demands for an administration report.
A similar issue arose during a 1978 Israeli action in southern Lebanon. At that time, the State Department, in a letter to Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of a House subcommittee, said the Israeli government had confirmed using cluster bombs, "a use contrary to previous assurances given to us."
The letter added: "We will make every effort to ensure that the government of Israel institutes measures that will prove effective in guarding against the misuse of this weapon in the future."
When he protested verbally that the cluster bomb issue had been ignored, Zablocki said, Undersecretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger told him there would be a separate report on those weapons.
The special agreement covering arms sales to Israel prohibits cluster bomb use except when Israel is attacked by one or more countries.
"The administration seizes on every effort to avoid discussing this until the fighting is all over," said Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.), who has strongly criticized Israel. "We are not now even slowing up deliveries of supplies to them as we have done in the past."
Findley said that although there is "broader sentiment" in Congress now than in the past to take action against Israel, "I have to say it is far from a majority."
Zablocki said one recent proposed addition to Israel's aid package might face trouble in Congress. He referred to an amendment approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adding $125 million to a foreign aid supplemental bill to help Israel pay its U.S. debts. "I doubt that the House will buy that now," Zablocki said.
In a related matter, Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens charged yesterday that U.S. public opinion is being subjected to "a campaign of slander and vilification going on in the United States, of unprecedented proportions."
Arens singled out an advertisement recently in several U.S. newspapers that was signed by an organization called "Concerned Americans for Peace." He charged that the advertisement contained "slander and lies" about the situation in Lebanon.
The ambassador, speaking at a breakfast meeting with reporters, maintained that "an overwhelming majority" of Americans support Israel's action in Lebanon, as indicated by public opinion polls, and that the American Jewish community has given "solid support" of an unprecedented kind to the Israeli action.