U.S. officials expect to reschedule early next year yesterday's canceled meeting between President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which they believe imperative to determine the chances for progress on Reagan's Mideast peace initiative.
The administration strategy, according to the officials who declined to be identified, is predicated on the assumption that Begin will make an all-out effort to convince Reagan to abandon his initiative.
But, according to this scenario, if Reagan stands firm, the Israeli leader will be left with only two basic choices.
He can denounce the initiative anew as an unacceptable threat to Israeli security and try to marshal Israel's supporters in Congress and the American Jewish community to put pressure on the president. Or, if he were to decide that such a course is likely to fail and produce a major rift with Reagan, he could seek ways of accommodating to Reagan's drive for a broadened Middle East peace process.
Administration policy makers obviously are hoping that events will lead him to make the latter choice, which would require Reagan to demonstrate to Begin in a face-to-face encounter that he will not be deterred from the course he charted Sept. 1.
Officials said this was the message the administration had hoped to get across at the White House meeting canceled after the death of Begin's wife forced the prime minister to break off a U.S. tour and return home.
Even before Begin's arrival in the United States last week, administration sources had been hinting strongly that he could expect to encounter some tough U.S. pressure such as a demand for a freeze on further Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A settlements freeze is a key element of the Reagan initiative, which also proposes that these territories be given eventual independence "in association with Jordan."
But the officials said that at the time Begin's trip was aborted last Saturday no firm decisions had been made about whether Reagan would press for specific measures like a settlements freeze. The main aim, they stressed, was not to seek concrete concessions or commitments but to achieve the broader objective of making clear to Begin that continued intransigence could put him on a collision course with Washington. Underlying that goal is the administration's feeling that the other key part of its Mideast strategy -- inducing the Arab world to cooperate by endorsing the entry of Jordan's King Hussein into broadened peace talks -- is moving generally in the direction desired by Washington.
Hussein will meet here with Reagan in late December.
To match and further encourage what it regards as slow but steady progress on the Arab side, the administration now believes it urgent to find ways of nudging Israel toward the bargaining table.
The canceled meeting with Begin was the forum in which the administration had planned to start that process, according to the officials. The meeting had been sought by Begin, who in past White House encounters successfully had faced down both then-President Carter and Reagan during serious U.S.-Israeli disputes.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the architect of the Mideast initiative, and two other administration advocates of a firm line toward Israel, national security adviser William P. Clark and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, are understood to have stressed to Reagan that his name is indelibly stamped on the initiative and that to abandon it now would destroy his credibility throughout the world.
Until Reagan meets with Begin, the officials said, tough signals that Washington has been sending in recent days, such as criticism of new Jewish settlements and Shultz's sharp denunciation of the Israeli crackdown on Arab universities in the West Bank, can be expected to continue to keep Begin on notice that Reagan intends to keep the initiative on course.