The Reagan administration, seeking to avert an angry reaction from American Jews, yesterday mounted a hasty backstage campaign to try to disassociate President Reagan from a White House official's suggestion that "people over here of the Jewish faith" should pressure Israel to release the 735 Lebanese it holds prisoner.
A Washington Post article quoting the White House official's remarks set off a frantic round of activity in Washington yesterday.
Representatives of about half a dozen leading American Jewish organizations -- all refusing to be identified by name -- said they had been assured categorically that the White House official's comments did not reflect President Reagan's views.
These Jewish activists said administration officials, whom they declined to name, maintained that the quotations in the Post article were not an attempt to circumvent public statements by Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz that the United States would not ask Israel to give in to the hijackers of TWA Flight 847, who demanded release of the Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the Americans who were taken hostage.
A senior White House official traveling to Chicago with Reagan aboard Air Force One yesterday described the words of his White House colleague as an "unfortunate remark," but he did not elaborate.
Other White House officials told representatives of Jewish groups that the person quoted by The Post, identified in the newspaper as "a well-informed White House official," was a low-ranking "fringe" figure.
The official told Washington Post reporters Thursday that the United States would not make a direct request to Israel to release the prisoners it holds, most of whom are Shiite Moslems, but expected Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to understand what Washington wants done.
The official said that "certainly there are enough people over here of the Jewish faith who can read . . . who must be telling people over there [in Israel], 'For God's sake, look what you're doing to public opinion' " in the United States.
There has been a growing anxiety in Israel and among its supporters in this country that the administration had been following a two-track policy of denying publicly that it wanted to pressure Israel, while finding ways to apply pressure to convince Israel to release its prisoners.
American Jewish leaders have become increasingly concerned that pressure tactics against Israel, which seemingly were typified by the White House official's remarks, could cause a backlash of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic feeling in American public opinion.
At the same time, representatives of major American Jewish communal and religious organizations have said repeatedly in the last two weeks that they had no clear-cut reason to disbelieve the administration's disclaimers that it has been manipulating public opinion against Israel.
Yesterday, a number of Jewish leaders said that the remarks of the White House official quoted in The Post seemed to be putting American Jews in a special category of citizenship, with intimations that their loyalty to the United States would be suspect if they did not take the hint and put pressure on Israel.
Despite the administration's efforts to minimize the situation, some Jewish organizations' representatives who are well connected in political circles said they saw signs that two camps, with opposing views on how to deal with Israel, existed within the administration.
They said that one group, which appeared to be centered around Vice President Bush, argued that Israel's prisoners were the key to resolving the situation and that Israel should be prodded to release them.
They said the other group, headed by Shultz and national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane, strongly opposed the idea of pressuring Israel, and had carried the day in terms of influencing the president.