Everything about Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir's meeting with President Reagan--the scripting, the stage-managing, the steely glares--was designed to deter the Israelis from shooting their way into West Beirut. Yet the Israelis didn't wait for Shamir's return before using their military power to close the ring a little tighter. Even before Reagan could fire off a letter of protest to Menachem Begin, for the first time hinting at some sort of U.S. sanctions, Begin was fulminating at the very thought of an American effort to "bring Israel to her knees."

The Israelis, you might reasonably conclude, couldn't care less about what Ronald Reagan wants. But there is more to it than that, judging from talks with members of the Shamir party. For one thing, the Begin government has gotten the impression, not just from the Shamir visit but consistently in a series of encounters, that Ronald Reagan doesn't care all that much about the things he professes to want. For another, the Israelis insist that, whatever Reagan wants, he's going about getting it in the worst possible way.

The public flailing and the flaunting of dark hints of reprisals, the Israelis tell you, drive Begin up the wall. And public statements about the absolute necessity of a cease-fire and a diplomatic settlement, they argue, rob the Israelis of any leverage--and the PLO of any incentive to negotiate. The Israelis may be wrong, and the Americans right. Presidential envoy Philip Habib has left Washington in no doubt about where he stands: nearly helpless to work out a deal on the exodus of PLO forces from Lebanon while the Israelis pummel West Beirut with bombs and shells. It was the president's purpose in his talks with Shamir to convey that message forcefully.

For all the theater, however, Reagan said nothing to Shamir that could be read in Jerusalem as a threat of some U.S. action to back up the deterrence--or of retaliation if the deterrence didn't work. That came later in the well-advertised "private" letter to Begin.

Where the the Israelis and the Americans part company is on a simple issue of tactics. "When the United States says it will accept only a diplomatic solution," said one Israeli visitor, "this only encourages the PLO not to negotiate." Worse, by Israeli reasoning, U.S. insistence on a cease-fire as a "necessity" translates into a requirement for Israel to demonstrate regularly that the military option hasn't been foreclosed.

The implication in all this is that if the United States were to follow the Israeli line in public and express merely a "preference" for a diplomatic outcome, rather than presenting it as the "only" way out, the Israelis might feel less need to find a pretext to keep breaking cease-fires by way of keeping the heat on the PLO. But there is no evidence that this approach has been explored, either with Shamir or Begin. Given the current rancid state of U.S.-Israeli relations, there is also no evidence that it would work.

The immediate prospect, then, is for just what the administration is presumably attempting to prevent: in the absence of a firm commitment from Arafat to leave Lebanon, with his guerrilla forces, the Israelis will engage in a progressive closing of the ring, incrementally, in ways that fall short of the so-called final assault. At some early point Arafat may crack. But at some more distant point, as this process proceeds, it could wind up eventually having the same result, in practical terms, as one big, final assault--but without quite the same shocking effect.