Israelis are growing seriously concerned about the future of their country's "special relationship" with the United States. The perception among officials and commentators here is that the Reagan and Begin administrations are already distant. They fear they could grow more so during Prime Minister Menachem Begin's new term in office.
This, in turn, could change the traditionally warm ties dating back to the early days of the Jewish state into a more standard US foreign relationship, they say, one possibly less tolerant than in the past.
Current US-Israel differences are seen here as involving both style and substance.
On style, for instance, Israeli political analysts have been critical of statements by US officials that have separated Mr. Begin from the people of Israel. By so doing, said one, the US was "undermining democracy" in Israel and actually causing a surge of support for Mr. Begin.
But it is the differences of substance that cause the greatest worry, as what appears to be a shift in Washington's overall Middle East policies works to the detriment of Israel. The Reagan administration's decision to freeze delivery of F-16 fighter-bombers symbolizes this.
"You are making the Middle East situation more difficult," an official who watches Arab world developments says. "You are showing there is a way of squeezing Israel. At least when Arab radicals, like Syria, have problems with Moscow they solve them behind a curtain."
Israelis are highly critical of the F-16 decision. Some officials say it is a contractual violation of the Camp David Treaty.
"What is the message here?" asks a foreign affairs specialist. "It is that if you are a small ally of the US you cannot rely on the US. This is like Iran, Vietnam. When the chips are down America does not come through."
The US Congress decision on the sale of advanced US surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia may be the next test of US-Israeli relations. If the F-16s to Israel are still suspended and the AWACS to Saudi Arabia approved, says one Labor Party strategist, "this will show how low our standing is in Washington."
In the view of one specialist on US-Israel relations here, "Arabists" in the Reagan administration are influencing decision-making by arguing: one, that Arab countries are more important than Israel; and, two, that only by good US-Arab relations can Soviet influence in the region be curbed.
This Israeli official claims, however, that Israel has served as an "outpost" in the struggle against Soviet penetration of the Mideast, driving back the Soviets by Israeli victories over Soviet-backed Arabs in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. (Arab leaders contend they would not have gone to the Soviets had the US not been backing Israel.)
"Israel was a shock absorb er in the East- West confrontation. You have had a little corner which took care of itself while the US was busy in Europe, Korea , and Vietnam," he argues. "Thereby, Western interests were enhanced."
Washington, however, is not being blamed exclusively for the strained relationship. Israelis acknowledge that the July 17 bombing of Beirut damaged Israel's image in the United States. Israel is attempting to counter the damage by:
* A media campaign against the Pelestine Liberation Organization.
* A conscious decision not to worsen the US-Israel breach. This means a pause in Israeli retaliatory raids against Palestinian guerrillas.