Washington — More continuity than change. More pragmatism than ideology. These seem to be the themes as the Reagan administration copes with its first Middle East crisis -- Lebanon. President Reagan has chosen one of the oldest pros in the diplomatic business to help defuse the Lebanese bomb: Philip Habib, a career foreign service officer, former ambassador, troubleshooter, and adviser to three secretaries of state. Mr. Habib, who leaves shortly as the President's special emissary to Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, combines the tough, streetwise, no-nonsense approach of his native Brooklyn with an appreciation for diplomatic nuance.
Both toughness and subtlety may be the qualities requried as the United States tries to get the Israelis and Syrians to back away from a confrontation in Lebanon. In doing this, and in dealing with other Middle East problems, the Reagan administration is relying heavily on career Foreign Service professionals such as Habib, Ambassadors John Gunther Dean in Beirut, Samuel Lewis in Tel Aviv , and Talcott Seelye in Damascus.
State Department officials say that Habib and his colleagues are searching for a diplomatic formula, or package deal, in Lebanon which will allow for face-saving on all sides.
"Face matters a lot in the Middle East," said one State Department official. "When the Syrians and Israelis back themselves into a corner, it can get awfully dangerous. . . . We need to work it out so both sides can claim victory."
Early in the Reagan administration, one of the fears of some diplomatic professionals was that "ideologues" and supporters of Israel within the new administration might favor "unleashing" the Israelis in Lebanon, with the aim of crushing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and teaching the Syrians and their Soviet supporters a lesson. Indeed, only recently President Reagan's national security adviser, Richard Allen, described Israeli retaliation against Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon as "hot pursuit of a sort."
While Carter administration officials had often been critical of such attacks , Allen seemed to be condoning them.
But the Reagan administration now seems to have its eye on dampening the crisis, and it has warned the Israelis repeatedly against taking any major military actions against the Syrian in Lebanon. In doing this, the administration is using diplomatic pressures which do not depart greatly from those which the Carter administration professionals applied during earlier Lebanon flare-ups.The Israelis, for their part, seem to be going along, but they make clear that there is limit to their patience when it comes to the recent emplacement in Lebanon by the Syrians of Soviet-supplied SAM-6 surface-to-air missiles.
The Reagan administration, meanwhile, has yet to formulate a clear approach to the Palestinian problem, which is one of the keys to resolving the conflict between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors.
President Reagan said at one point that Israeli settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, which is largely inhabited by Palestinians, were not illegal. This seemed to contradict previous administration policy and previous interpretations of United Nations resolutions on the subject. The State Department subsequently nudged the administration back toward the maintsream of previous policy by declaring that the settlements were still ill advised.
Only a few months into his administration, President Carter had formulated his concept of a comprehensive Middle East peace, advocated a Palestinian "homeland," and met with the key leaders involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Three months into the Reagan presidency, no one is quite sure how the new team will proceed. It has endorsed the Camp David accords reached between Israel and Egypt under the sponsorship of President Carter, but, as far as most specialists know, President Reagan still considers the plight of the Palestinians largely a "refugee" problem.
Top-level Middle East visitors to Washington are on "hold." Indeed, much is on hold until the administration can see the results of Israel's forthcoming election, scheduled for June 30.
What is new so far in the administration's Middle East rhetoric is deemphasis on the Palestinian problem and greater emphasis on countering the Soviets. Israel is spoken of as a "strategic asset" in a way which would have been unusual in the Carter administration.
But when it comes to the new administration's actual handling of several key issues, such as the Lebanese peacemaking effort, a peace-keeping force for the Sinai, and sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, the theme is continuity with the past. Some officials, for example, advocated a dual purpose for the contemplated US contingent in the Sinai peace-keeping force now under consideration.As they saw it, the US contingent could help insure the Egyptian-Israeli peace but also could rapidly deploy to other trouble spots if necessary. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. vetoed that idea, partly out of consideration for Egypt's President Sadat. In the end, the peace-keeping force is beginning to look much like what Carter administration officials had in mind.