United Nations, N.Y. — Dismay, disbelief, shock. These are the reactions here to President Carter's statement to the effect that the US vote against Israel on March 1 "was an error that had resulted from a breakdown in communications."
This retraction has been received with stern disapproval and widespread skepticism by ambassadors from both Eastern and Western Europe, from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America, from the third world and the communist countries.
No one, of course, wants to publicly criticize the highest-ranking official of their host country, but all of them in private deliver harsh comments on what several among them call the "latest and most unbelievable zig of President Carter's zigzag foreign policy."
Observations vary from the sarcastic and bitter ones to the discouraged and melancholy ones. There is apparently a consensus that President Carter's exercise in back-tracking:
* Severely damages US credibility not only with the Arabs but also with the allies and neutral parties.
* Results not from a "breakdown in communications" but from the pressures of the American Jewish community.
One Latin American ambassador whose opinion is echoed by many other diplomats believes the incident to be "a replay, on a different scale of the (Andy Young affair.'"
He adds, "Andy Young, who was an outspoken politician, could be blamed and dismissed for 'having gone beyond his instructions.' McHenry, who is a meticulous foreign service career officer, could not be accused of improvising. Thus the 'breakdown of communications.'
"In fact," the ambassador continues, "McHenry, like Young before him, had done precisely what he had been instructed to do but was disavowed by the President, who ran for cover once the Jewish clamor was heard at the White House. . . . The McHenry and Andrew Young incidents are both replays of the Soviet-American joint communique about the Geneva Conference during the fall of 1977. Then, too, Mr. Carter backtracked a few days later, at the end of a long meeting with Moshe Dayan in New York."
One Arab ambassador from a country friendly to the US says: "The President's statement is regrettable. The vote was a first step in the right direction. Now the US has the worst of two worlds: IT has not calmed Israeli suspicions and it has angered the Arabs."
Another ambassador from a country with close ties to the US says: "A clumsy move, to say the least. And one definitely uncalled for. The US vote against Israeli settlements was, indeed, consistent with stated US policy, with Resolution 242, and with the Camp David agreements, which called for trading territory against peace."
Yet another high-ranking Arab diplomat believes: "There is reason for alarm. The 'baby' [the US vote of March 1] was not born as we believed from a legitimate relationship between the US government and logic, but it was -- we are told -- a mishap [the 'breakdown in communications']. This display of irresponsibility at a time when the Middle East is ready to explode casts a serious shadow on American reliability."
An East European ambassador, after first saying "it is beyond comment," later admitted that "such American vacillation when so much is at stake is very troublesome."
According to a Middle Eastern envoy, "The Arabs cannot but be deeply disappointed and they draw the appropriate conclusions. For what we have watched is a president of the United States ready to sacrifice his principles and the vital interests of his country -- the Iranian crisis, the Afganistan crisis, and the oil supply to the West are linked to the Palestinian question -- for electoral expediency."
A Western ambassador confesses to being "saddened and preoccupied." He went on, "It confirms our worst feelings about President Carter as inept. He changed his mind about the neutron bomb, about the Soviet brigade in Havana, and now about the vote against Israel."
Another distinguished and generally understated Western diplomat whispered: "Most unusual, would you not say? It does not enhance the President's prestige, does it?"
There is general agreement that the credibility of Ambassador McHenry -- despite official explanations, which exonerate him -- has been dealt a severe blow. One analyst here states bluntly:
"The 'breakdown in communication' version of the events leaves us with only two alternatives: Either Mr. McHenry or Mr. Vance or both are less than competent, having failed to properly inform the President of the contents of the UN resolution, and in that case they ought to resign or be dismissed. Or, the President is not telling the truth."
Fourteen permanent members of the Security Council were led to believe, Feb. 29, that their meeting should be postponed so as to allow Ambassador McHenry to "speak directly to President Carter."
The US mission admits that this had been his intention but that instead he talked only with Mr. Vance. But members of the Security Council feel that basically this is irrelevant, because all week long Ambassador McHenry had negotiated with them every single word and comma of the draft resolution and discussed them in great detail with Mr. Vance, himself a meticulous diplomat. These diplomats say it is impossible to believe that Ambassador McHenry or Mr. Vance, wittingly or not, misled the President on a matter of such gravity.
A leading nonaligned diplomat said: "A both shameful and depressing affair. Many people here thought at last the US had come to realize that its Middle Eastern policy should not rest on an Israeli pillar alone, and now once again, "The tail has wagged the dog.'"