Old-timers in Congress thought they would never see the day. The Senate Appropriations Committee was meeting routinely to "mark up" the foreign- operations bill. A couple of Israel's faithful friends, Robert Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) had slipped a provision into the Israeli-aid program that they claimed would add $500 million or so in economic aid without costing U.S. taxpayers anything.

Business as usual, you might say. U.S. aid to Israel gets bigger every year, systematically, thanks to an endlessly energetic Israeli lobby. But this time it didn't work. This time, the Israeli issue gave way to the burning issue of budget deficits and the public debt. This time there was a real, honest-to-God fight, with some of Israel's best friends saying, in effect, enough is enough.

"Enough" in this case is something close to $3.8 billion annually. Economic assistance to Israel in the current fiscal year would be about $1.2 billion, up from $785 million only three years ago. Military aid would total $1.8 billion, up from $1.4 billion last year. Contrary to past practice of the Israelis paying for at least part of it, it now comes entirely in the form of grants. To help underwrite Israel's economic recovery efforts, a special $1.5 billion fund has been awarded, half of it in a supplemental appropriation to last year's aid, the other half in the current fiscal year.

But that is not enough for Kasten and Inouye, who wrote into the original bill a "buy down" of the interest Israel pays on its loans from the United States, from about 11.5 percent to 5 percent. The saving to Israel, in effect a gift from the United States, would amount to $531,710,682.

But the U.S. government would have to pay for it. In an effort to seem not to be breaking through the budgetary ceiling for foreign aid, Inouye and Kasten did a little jiggery-pokery with unused funds of the Export-Import Bank, which conveniently totaled around $500 million.

It all looks so innocent you would hardly know that Israel would be getting a whopping increase in U.S. aid. Except that Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) did know. So did Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), whose responsibility as ranking member of the Budget Committee makes him especially deficit-conscious. And so did the new director of the Office of Mangement and Budget, James C. Miller III.

In confidential, identical letters to Hatfield and the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, John Stennis, Majority Leader Robert Dole, Kasten and Inouye, the OMB director deplored the use of "accounting gimmicks that will distort" Export-Import Bank budgeting and added that the Inouye-Kasten bookkeeping is "completely inconsistent with estabished budget-accounting principles." Aid to Israel is already at "extraordinary levels," he argued.

Hatfield was no less vehement, according to those present at the "mark- up" meeting. Arguing that all the other appropriations subcommittees had stayed within their prescribed ceilings, he told Inouye and Kasten that if there was an odd $500 million lying around in the foreign aid budget, there were some American farmers who could use it.

Chiles told the two sponsors they were living in an "Alice in Wonderland dreamland." He said the Inouye-Kasten provision, while applicable only to this year's aid program, would almost certainly become a fixture; cutting it out next time around in an election year, or in any year, is not something Congress would be likely to do.

The outcome of the Inouye-Kasten ploy is in doubt. At some point it will go to the Senate floor, where opposition to the Export-Import Bank bookkeeping may prompt its sponsors to look for the money elsewhere in the aid program.

What makes this whole business all the more extraordinary is that Israel neither requested the "buy down" nor is actively supporting it, according to embassy spokesmen. They don't quite say that if the issue turns in their favor, they won't be smiling all the way to the bank. But you do get a certain sense that they, too, feel that enough is enough -- that any more would be pushing their luck.

What's going on here would appear to be yet one more example of Israel's best friends in America being more Israeli than the Israelis.