In answer to its repeated requests for information, the Reagan administration has received a "formal reply" from Israel about its use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in air attacks on Lebanon, the White House said yesterday.
The White House said the Israeli reply, which was received late Friday, was under review. A spokesman declined to give any indication of what was in it.
At the same time, Pentagon officials said that the Defense Department, in an attempt to take some action that would symbolize displeasure with the Israeli use of such weapons, has taken preliminary steps to bar the scheduled shipment to Israel of additional artillery shells that function like cluster bombs.
But a White House spokesman denied news reports that President Reagan had already made a decision to withhold the weapons. "No decision has been made on the shipments," assistant press secretary Anson Franklin said yesterday.
Privately, officials said they expected a presidential decision soon because the transfer of title on the new batch of 155mm artillery shells is scheduled for Monday and the Pentagon has already ordered a hold on this transfer. Although officials were unwilling to predict what the president would decide, interviews with officials in several agencies made clear their personal views that it would be "kind of dumb to ship a bunch of them now," as one put it.
But the same officials also said that Washington did not want to start an acrid and public fight with Israel while special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib was trying to work out a negotiated settlement of the fighting and a way to get the Palestine Liberation Organization forces out of their last bastion in West Beirut.
These developments came as Secretary of State George P. Shultz spent his first long day in office concentrating on the problems of the Middle East. In a meeting with Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens, Shultz said he is as committed to Israel as Reagan is, according to an account by an Israeli official.
Shultz emphasized, as he did in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his high priority on dealing with the Palestinian issue. The Israeli account also said Shultz expressed his sensitivity to Israeli security needs.
Arens, in turn, explained Israel's position on the Lebanon conflict and said Habib will be given time to make diplomacy work, according to the account.
The secretary of state also met Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal, according to official sources.
Shultz also called in three old friends, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, former government official and diplomat Laurence Silberman and industrialist Irving S. Shapiro, to join several State Department and National Security Council officials in discussion of Middle East problems. The group met over lunch at the State Department and returned for a working dinner on the same subject last night.
Although cluster bomb munitions are a small part of the almost $3 billion in American military aid provided Israel annually, the possible misuse of these weapons in Israel's invasion and occupation of Lebanon has touched off a potentially explosive political debate in this country and threatens to further damage already strained diplomatic relations between the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin.
The cluster bomb munitions are lethal antipersonnel weapons that can be dropped from planes or fired from artillery. The weapons spray scores of small, exploding, shrapnel-producing "bomblets" around a target. They can be devastating when used against troop concentrations or missile batteries, but they also can cause heavy civilian casualties when used in areas where troops or guerrillas are intermingled with the population.
On Thursday, the State Department delivered a confidential letter to Congress that reportedly said a "substantial violation" by Israel of the 1952 U.S. Arms Export Control Act "may have occurred."
That law says U.S. arms may be used only for self-defense, regional defense and internal security. The letter, which reached no judgments and seemed to infuriate several congressional leaders, apparently dealt with a long list of American equipment used in the Lebanese campaign.
But the use of cluster bombs is also covered by other, secret restrictions and agreements between Israel and the United States. Those agreements, reached in the mid-1970s, reportedly allow their use only against "regular forces of a sovereign nation" and under "special wartime conditions," which is interpreted as the kind of major wars against two or more nations that Israel faced in 1967 and 1973.
Israeli military officers, including Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, have acknowledged use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. But they have argued that the weapons have been used selectively against organized military units or military positions.
Other Israelis have argued that the PLO intentionally intermingles with the population to use civilians as a shield. Thus, they contend, attacks with any weapons sometimes cause civilian casualties.
The administration, however, has been trying for several weeks to get answers from Israel on exactly how the cluster-type weapons were being used. Top administration officials such as Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and top congressional figures such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) have publicly expressed exasperation over the delay.
White House officials said the Israeli reply was being reviewed by the State Department. Although the officials said they had not seen the actual letter, some suggested that it "apparently is not definitive," meaning that it may not have much detail and may not make settling the issue easier or quicker.
The White House statement said, "The administration yesterday received a formal reply from the Israeli government concerning allegations of the use of U.S.-supplied cluster bomb munitions. We are reviewing the Israeli reply and associated factors."
It was not explained what "associated factors" meant but this could suggest that the administration will take into consideration Israeli explanations of extenuating circumstances.
The United States is understood not to have shipped any cluster bombs to Israel for a long time but there have been continued shipments of the 155mm cluster-type ammunition.
The Israelis, one Pentagon official said, already have "quite a lot" of these shells and since there were no bombs on order it was thought that cutting off the shells would send the appropriate signal. There is no indication, officials said, that the rest of the normal military supply line to Israel would be interrupted.
Judging from discussions with a number of Pentagon officials, the level of feeling about the issue is strong there. "It's the minimum we can do without being abrasive," one official said, "and without provoking Israel into a position of truculence" on the situation in West Beirut.
The administration does not want to be perceived as cracking down on Israel but on the cluster bomb issue, the official said. "There is a growing sentiment that you just can't do nothing about this situation . . . . It just can't go on."
Administration officials said, however, there were other views and other considerations and that it was unclear how the review would come out and the decision would go.