The Reagan administration is finding that putting pressure on Israel -- and Menachem Begin in particular -- is no easy proposition. For one thing, while American public opinion may have moved in a direction favoring such pressure, Israeli opinion has moved, in some respects, in the opposite direction. American pressure applied too crudely, or loudly, could backfire, thus strengthening Begin's position among Israelis.
Meanwhile, what is so extraordinary in the current situation is that there are so few voices in the US Congress defending Israel's recent attacks into Lebanon. The Israelis' July 17 bombing of Beirut seemed to go so far beyond previous actions that it appalled many senators and congressmen.
As of this writing, only two congressmen had publicly tried to justify what happened in Beirut: Stephen J. Solarz and James H. Scheuer, both Democrats from New York. Many other well-known friends of Israel in the Congress have remained silent.
Many influential members of the Jewish community outside the Congress also are said to be in anguish over the Beirut bombing. President Reagan is thus free, at least for the moment, from the kind of pressures that have inhibited past presidents when they sought to restrain or otherwise influence Israel.
But there appear to be limits as to how far any US administration can go in putting public pressure on the Israelis. As President Carter discovered, public pressure from the Americans sometimes has the result of rallying Israelis behind their leader.
Hence, while leading members of the Reagan administration have publicly warned on several occasions in recent days that Begin went too far with the July 17 Beirut bombing raid, President Reagan himself has kept his distance to a degree from such statements by deploring the violence from all sides. The President has noted, out of deference to Israel, that Israelis have been under rocket attack.
"If you club Israel on the head in a sort of high-profile setting, it won't work," says a former associate of Prime Minister Begin.
"If you tell the Israelis you're going to withhold some airplanes today and then more tommorrow, that won't work either," he adds, referring to President Reagan's decision to suspend delivery of ten F- 16 warplanes to Israel. "It will have the opposite effect."
If this Israeli is correct, then the time for quieter diplomacy may have come. Rep. Paul Findley, a Republican from illinois who has been a consistent critic of Prime Minister Begin, says that former President Carter twice used a combination of public and private diplomacy to get the Israelis to end actions in Lebanon, once in 1978 and again in 1979.
A former member of the National Security Council staff, who asked not to be identified, described the 1978 incident as follows:
"Israel had invaded southern Lebanon and the UN called for withdrawal. The Israelis did pull back but they left some military equipment -- American military equipment -- behind.
"We asked [Foreign Minister] Dayan, and he told us everything had been withdrawn. We took a satellite picture and saw that the American equipment was still there. Carter felt he had been lied to and misused and sent a short, blunt note to Begin that basically said: 'Contrary to the information you supplied us, we have firm evidence that you still have American military equipment in Lebanon. This will require that I report to the Congress. By law, aid will then have to be terminated.'
"Begin screamed and moaned and said he resented being called a liar. . . . But the equipment was out within 24 hours."
Other sources note that Begin was susceptible as well to quietly applied American pressure during the 1978 Camp David negotiations once he determined that it was in his interest to sign a US-sponsored peace treaty with Egypt.
But one expert on the subject said that Begin was more suspectible to pressure on Lebanon in 1978 and 1979 than he is now, partly because of the presence in the Israeli Cabinet in 1978-79 of Ezer Weizman as defense minister. Weizman, who later split with Begin over the slow progress of the Palestinian autonomy negotiations, was described as politically sensitive to American pressures but also strong enough to stand up to pressures from Israeli military men who wanted to continue fighting in Lebanon.
Of all the American officials applying public pressure to Israel, meanwhile, the most outspoken has been US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.In an interview with ABC television, Weinberger accused Begin of twice disrupting Ambassador Philip C. Habib's peacemaking missions to the Middle East.
One defense analyst close to Weinberger's thinking explained the defense secretary's anger over the recent Israeli attacks into Lebanon in this way: "Weinberger sees his whole effort at creating a more effective defense structure being threatened. . . . He sees a danger to our relationship with Saudi Arabia. He thinks that if we can work with the Saudis, they'll keep the cost of oil down , build the military facilities we need, and even buy the [equipment] to preposition."