Under growing pressure, mostly from the news media, to explain his role in the administration's secret arms sales to Iran, Vice President Bush has increasingly put the blame on Israel, culminating Monday night in his assertion in a CBS News interview that the arms sales were "an operation in the hands of a foreign power."

Bush's emphasis on the role of Israel reflects what he has been saying to associates, given in answers to press inquiries and what he told the Tower review board in December 1986, according to aides and records.

Despite Israel's failure to make public the full details of Israeli participation in the arms sales, the record of the affair shows a significant Israeli role from the outset. However, the record also shows that the United States was a willing partner of Israel at some points, and took control of the secret arms shipments to the Iranians at others. According to testimony to the Iran-contra congressional investigating committees, White House officials from the beginning considered blaming Israel for the arms sales if the clandestine operation ever became public.

The House and Senate committees in their majority report detailed Israel's sponsorship of the first arms shipments in 1985 but noted that beginning in January 1986 the United States took direct control of the arms sales operation. "No foreign state can dictate the conduct of U.S. foreign policy," the majority of the two committees concluded. "Superpowers make their own decisions. And the United Stated did so in this instance."

The dramatic manner in which Bush underscored the Israeli role Monday, and his repeated insistence that he did not realize the United States had engaged in swapping arms for hostages until December 1986, are likely to invite more detailed questioning of Bush in the future.

According to aides, Bush is sensitive to Jewish concerns about his repeated public emphasis on the Israeli role in the arms sales. One source said Jewish leaders have specifically asked the vice president to refer to "certain Israelis" or otherwise avoid mentioning the state of Israel directly. On CBS television Monday, Bush referred to a "foreign power."

The vice president regularly attended White House meetings and briefings when at least five distinct phases of the 16-month operation were discussed, some of which had heavy Israeli involvement and some of which were clearly directed by the White House.

He also sat through a 30-minute briefing from Israeli counterterrorist official Amiram Nir in July 1986 in which Nir said that "we" had to decide whether to send more American arms to Iran at that time in response to the recent release of the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, or to wait until all hostages were released before sending more arms. Bush's chief of staff, Craig L. Fuller, made a detailed record of that briefing in a memo that was published in the Tower board report.

In his CBS News interview, Bush insisted that Nir had only told him about "what they {the Israelis} were doing, and not what we were doing . . . . " But the memo on the meeting makes it clear that Nir spoke both about Israeli and U.S. operations, including a secret mission to Tehran two months earlier by former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane in which Nir took part.

In December 1986, Bush gave another version of his meeting with Nir to the Tower board. According to the notes of a board attorney, Bush said then "his discussion with Mr. Nir was generally about counterterrorism. There was no discussion of specifics relating to arms going to the Iranians . . . ." A Bush aide later said those notes were incorrect, but Tower board sources insisted they were accurate.

According to the notes of the Bush-Nir meeting made contemporaneously by Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, there was no general conversation about counterterrorism. Nir reviewed the secret dealings with Iran, including specific discussion of sending Hawk antiaircraft missile spares and TOW antitank missiles to Iran.

At the time, documents show, CIA Director William J. Casey and White House National Security Council staff aide Oliver L. North were pressing for a decision to again begin shipping arms to Iran because the Iranians had released Jenco. According to Fuller, it was North who urged that Nir brief Bush in Jerusalem, and the memo of the meeting suggests that Nir was lobbying the vice president for his approval of a resumption of arms shipments. However, in his memo, Fuller emphasized that Bush took no position on the matter. The very next day, President Reagan approved a resumption of arms shipments.

Bush told CBS anchor Dan Rather on Monday night that his primary reservation about the arms sales to Iran was over the "control of an operation in the hands of a foreign power."

An aide to Bush said after the interview that the vice president strongly believes that Israel ran and controlled the Iranian arms sales for over a year until the United States established a second channel to authorities in Tehran in August 1986.

But in January 1986, Bush was present when then national security adviser John M. Poindexter presented Reagan with a proposal for a U.S. covert operation to sell 4,000 TOWs to Iran, and the president signed an intelligence order authorizing the operation. The record shows that Poindexter and his aide, Lt. Col. North, then directed the operation from the White House.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 18, 1986, more than a month after the Iran arms sales had been publicly exposed, Bush told the Tower review board which Reagan had appointed to investigate the NSC that the interests of the United States "were in the grip of the Israelis" and that the Israelis were using the operation to "cover" previous arms sales to Iran by Israel going back to the early 1980s.

The Tower board notes of the interview, which are still classified top secret, said: "Initially, the vice president had been concerned that the U.S. fate would be caught up in the Israeli activity; in his view, the Israeli activity may now be an advantage for the United States."

In written answers to Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory on Jan. 13, Bush said, "I was concerned that having another power involved gave us less than total control over the operation. I also had the concerns that I have when any covert action is undertaken -- how will it be interpreted if the cover is blown? Will lives be lost? Will our credibility be damaged? Unfortunately, my reservations turned out to be well-founded."

A Bush aide said this week that the vice president's reservations that were expressed directly to the president went no further than those he outlined in his answer to McGrory. Bush has said he will not discuss his private advice to the president as a matter of principle.

The record of the Iran-contra hearings shows that a number of key figures discussed using Israel as a cover for the U.S. covert operation. Beginning on Jan. 18, 1986, the day after the president signed the finding authorizing the direct U.S. arms sales, retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord, who managed the transfer of arms for North, testified that he attended a White House meeting when "it was planned that part of the cover for this operation would be that if it were discovered, that the Israelis could 'take the hit.' "

North also testified that the Israelis provided a layer of "plausible deniability" to hide the U.S. role. On Nov. 23, 1986, nearly three weeks after the public disclosure of the secret arms sales, North unsuccessfully attempted to get Nir to "accept responsibility" for the diversion of arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contras, according to the Iran-contra committees.

Two days later, on Nov. 25, 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese III told a news conference inaccurately that "representatives of Israel" were in charge of the Iran arms sales and the diversion of funds to the contras.Staff researchers Michelle Hall and Melissa Mathis contributed to this report. WASHINGTON POST-ABC NEWS POLL

Q. I'm going to read to you a few phrases that people sometimes use to describe presidential candidates, and for each, I want you to tell me if the phrase better describes Robert Dole or George Bush. Here's the first:

Would do the best job handling the economy and the federal budget. ------------------------ALL VOTERS------ REPUBLICANS----------DEMOCRATS

Dole................53%............. 43%..................61%

Bush................40%............. 52%..................32%

Would do the best job handling relations with other countries.

Dole.................39.............. 27...................50

Bush.................54.............. 69...................43

Would be most likely to raise taxes.

Dole.................43 ............. 54 ..................34

Bush.................44.............. 33...................54

Would do what is right, even if it hurt him politically.

Dole.................47.............. 37...................56

Bush.................40.............. 51...................32

Does not understand the problems of the average person.

Dole.................31.............. 39....................28

Bush.................51.............. 43....................57

Is a strong leader.

Dole.................55.............. 45....................62

Bush.................37.............. 47....................30

Has the background and experience to be president.

Dole.................29.............. 18....................39

Bush.................62.............. 75....................53

Would make sure the government operates efficiently.

Dole.................48.............. 38....................56

Bush.................40.............. 51....................32

Figures are based on a Washington Post-ABC News Poll of 1,105 self-described registered voters, 507 of whom are registered voters who described themselves as Republicans or independents leaning to the Republican Party and 539 of whom are registered voters who described themselves as Democrats or independents leaning to the Democratic Party. Interviews for this survey were conducted Jan. 17-23. Margin of sampling error for all voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points and 4 percentage points for results broken down by party.