President Reagan, shocked by the latest heavy Israeli assault on West Beirut, telephoned Prime Minister Menachem Begin yesterday to express his "outrage" and concern that Israel's actions will cripple U.S. efforts to negotiate the withdrawal of Palestinian guerrillas from Lebanon.
Underlying the president's stern reaction, which resulted in Israel's halting its attack, was concern that renewed fighting could set back or even derail the agreement being worked out by special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib for evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
U.S. officials are known to think that Habib had been making such significant progress in recent days that it might be possible to begin the PLO withdrawal as early as next week.
Although yesterday's fighting forced a halt in Habib's efforts, administration sources said last night that they were hopeful that the interruption would be temporary and that Habib could get his mission back on track today.
In the strongest public statement directed at Israel since the onset of the Lebanon crisis, White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said Reagan told Begin in a 10-minute conversation that the Israeli bombing and shelling had caused "more needless destruction and bloodshed."
Speakes added, "The president made it clear that it is imperative that the cease-fire in place be observed absolutely in order for negotiations to proceed."
White House sources, elaborating on the exchange, said Reagan rejected Begin's argument that the Palestinians were the first to break the cease-fire and charged that Israel's reaction had been "totally out of proportion" to the provocation.
The sources added that the president, echoing the message he sent to Begin last week after a similar Israeli assault on Beirut, made clear that the United States will hold Israel responsible if Habib's mission fails because of constant cease-fire violations.
Although the sources declined to specify what the United States might do then, Reagan's message last week is known to have contained the implied threat of a cutoff of American arms aid to Israel.
The severe strains that have been produced in U.S.-Israeli relations by the Beirut situation result from profound differences over how best to achieve the goal, shared by both governments, of inducing the PLO's leaders and guerrilla fighters to leave the besieged city and go to other Arab countries.
The United States contends that Habib, who has been trying to negotiate a settlement for more than seven weeks, cannot function if his efforts are halted every three or four days by new Israeli bombing and shelling.
Israel has countered that it will not permit the PLO to fire on its forces without responding and that the PLO will not negotiate in good faith unless it is subjected to constant military pressure from the Israeli troops surrounding the city.
Last week, these differences seemed to be bringing relations between Washington and Jerusalem close to the breaking point. Then, over the weekend, the tensions began to lessen as it became clear that Habib was close to a potential breakthrough; and U.S. efforts this week have focused on giving him the maximum possible breathing space to wrap up the complex details of an agreement and get the evacuation under way.
That was why yesterday's fresh outbreak of bombing and shelling produced such a quick and vehement U.S. reaction. According to Speakes, the president immediately ordered the American ambassador in Israel, Sam Lewis, to give Begin a message underscoring his concern.
Reagan also tried to call Begin between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., but was unable to reach him. In the meantime, Speakes continued, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd called Reagan to "express his concern over the situation in West Beirut."
Shortly afterward, the White House received word that Israel had ordered the bombing in West Beirut halted. At 11:10 a.m. Reagan did get through to Begin for the talk, which lasted about 10 minutes. The statement later issued by Speakes said in part:
"The president expressed his outrage over this latest round of massive military action. He emphasized that Israel's action halted Ambassador Habib's negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the Beirut crisis when they were at the point of success. The result has been more needless destruction and bloodshed. The president made it clear that it is imperative that the cease-fire in place be observed absolutely in order for negotiations to proceed."
Speakes refused to give further details or say whether Reagan had threatened any reprisals against Israel. But the spokesman added that at 11:40 a.m., 20 minutes after the two leaders spoke, Begin called back to tell the president that Israeli forces had been ordered to observe the cease-fire completely.
In the midst of the fighting, Lebanese Prime Minister Saffik Wazzan, who has been acting as go-between for the PLO, broke off his talks with Habib. Last night, U.S. officials said that after the cease-fire was restored, Habib contacted the Lebanese about resuming talks; but the officials added it was unlikely that they would know before today whether the negotiations can be picked up again without further delays.
A poll by the Associated Press and NBC, released yesterday and based on a scientific telephone sample of 1,594 adults, found that 51 percent of the respondents disapprove of Israel's military actions in Lebanon. The poll also found that 56 percent of those who had read or heard of the fighting say they think the United States should withhold military aid to Israel if it fails to show restraint.