Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's meeting in Washington with President Reagan, still two weeks away, is shaping up as one of the most crucial diplomatic encounters he has ever had.
In one sense Mr. Begin is engaged with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in a struggle "for the heart and mind" of Mr. Reagan as the Republican administration at last gets down to trying to revive the peace process in the Middle East.
Mr. Sadat had his say in the White House earlier this month. By all accounts he did well --- even if he did not manage at this stage to persuade Mr. Reagan to the Egyptian point of view about Palestinian participation in the peace talks.
As for the outlook for Mr. Begin's visit, the Jerusalem Post's Washington correspondent wrote the other day: "From the standpoint of [the Israeli prime minister's] personal stature in overall US public opinion, there is little doubt that he will be arriving here in a weaker position than at any previous time since he was first elected in 1977. Rightly or wrongly, he has alienated many key public opinion molders in the US news media, Congress, and even the Jewish community."
Two immediate challenges face Mr. Begin. Dare he risk further alienation not simply of the opinion molders but also of Mr. Reagan, still at the beginning of his presidency, by:
1. Taking on the US President on the latter's home turf in an all-out fight on the controversial issue of the American decision to sell five sophisticated AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes to Saudi Arabia?
2. Reinforcing the widespread perception of the outside world (including a wide segment of US public opinion) that Israel is responsible for the present stalling of the Middle East peace process because of obduracy on the Palestine issue, which masks an Israeli intent to annex the entire West Bank of the Jordan.
Virtually everything that is happening in or affecting the Middle East at the moment has some bearing on Mr. Begin's encounter with Mr. Reagan.
* First and foremost, this week's Alexandria meeting between Mr. Sadat and Mr. Begin -- the latter accompanied by three of the most hard-line hawks in his Cabinet -- gives the Egyptian President an opportunity to exercise his considerable charm on the Israeli team and to show the outside world how reasonable and flexible he is, even when confronted by the most intransigent men on the other side.
At the end of the two-day Alexandria meeting, the two leaders announced the Palestinian autonomy talks will be resumed in a month's time -- reportedly on Sept. 23 in Washington, with US participation, i.e., two weeks after the Reagan-Begin meeting.
* The Reagan administrationhs final release of blocked F-15 and F-16 jet fighters to Israel, apparently without political conditions, increases the moral pressure on Mr. Begin to be cooperative rather than obstructive when he arrives in Washington.
* Saudi Arabia's holding of the price line for oil at the recent OPEC meeting in Geneva was good news for the US and puts moral pressure on Washington to be as sympathetic as possible to Saudi requests -- and therefore resistant to Israeli anti-Saudi moves.
* The encounter between US and Libyan fighter aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra will have pleased the Israelis in that it dealt a blow to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.But it also carried a message: Mr. Reagan is prepared to be very tough, once persuaded that such a course is in the US national interest.
Yet it would be unwise to underestimate Israeli Prime Minister Begin and his resourcefulness. He seems to thrive on adversity and daunting challenge. He is carried forward by all-out commitment to a cause. Few at the outset gave him much hope of winning the general election at the end of June. When he can represent the rest of the outside world as against him and Israeli, he knows how to rally Israeli public opinion in support of himself. His Achilles' heel is Jewish opinion in the US.
He agreed to the cease-fire that US Ambassador Philip Habib was negotiating in Lebanon only when persuaded that his excessive militancy, particularly his bombing of Beirut, was beginning to alienate Jewish-American opinion. Jewish Americans can be exected once again in the days ahead to weigh their usual understandable support for Israel against the risk for them as a community in being seen by other Americans as pitted against a proven popular and powerful US President defending the national interest.
A Jerusalem Post correspondent in Washington reported that Mr. Begin is aware of his "damaged image in the aftermath of the Beirut bombing." The correspondent added that Mr. Begin "is said to be interested in demonstrating to the White House and the State Department that as Israel's prime minister, he still retains considerable clout. Thus, according to reliable sources, he wants rallies and demonstrations in both Washington and New York [during his visit]. They probably will be organized. but how much genuine warmth comes through is another question."