Washington — Israel's air attacks deep into Lebanon are seen by many here as a humiliation for the United States that cannot go unanswered. The US is engaged in an intensive effort to end the new cycle of Middle East violence. But, as of this writing, there was no clear indication of what, if any, punitive action the US might take against Israel for its use of American bombs and warplanes in striking a section of the city of Beirut heavily populated by civilians.
Initial indications were that leading Reagan administration officials are divided as to what the US response should be. Some Middle East specialists outside the administration said that it was an appearance of confusion and weakness in the administration's Middle East policy in the first place that may have led Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to feel that he could use American warplanes to strike with impunity into Lebanon. The Israelis call the raids "preemptive" - designed to disrupt Palestinian military actions before they occur. But reports from Beirut indicate that the number of civilian victims from the July 17 bombing of the city far outnumber any military casualties.
Speaking on the ABC television program "Issues and Answers" on July 19, US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said that he and President Reagan were following the situation "minute by minute" and that the United States was working in the United Nations and with its allies to help secure a ceasefire.
Secretary Haig said that the President had not yet decided whether to send to Israel four muchpublicized, American-built F-16 fighter-bombers. A decision on the planes' delivery had been suspended following Israel's June 7 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor near Baghdad.
Regardless of what the US decides on the shipment of these four airplanes, however, some analysts think that Israel's recent use of American warplanes against civilian centers has, at least in the short term:
* Further complicated the peace missions of presidential envoy Philip Habib, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab League nations as they attempt to defuse the persisting crisis between Israel and Syria.
* Weakened american credibility among the socalled moderate Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, which have been friendly to the United States. By extension, American efforts to establish a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East against the Soviet Union have been damaged as well.
* Further weakened Egyptian President Sadat's status in the Arab world shortly before he goes to Washington to meet for the first time with President Reagan. Sadat had met with Begin only shortly before the Israelis raided the Iraqi nuclear reactor. He had signed an agreement with the Israelis on a Sinai peacekeeping force on the day that the Israelis raided Beirut.
In the long term, raids such as the July 17 strike on Beirut may have an even more profound effect on Arab attitudes, reinforcing what appears to be an already strong trend toward anti-Americanism among young Arabs.
As one United Nations official put it, "If you start using these high-performance aircraft against civilians, the Arabs can only revert to the most perverse form of radicalism . . . .
"It does seem to indicate an attitude on the part of the Israelis that they don't recognize any rights for the Palestinians."
"The Israelis have been pushing the West Bank settlement program like mad for the last few months," the official added. "But I don't think they can go on forever being the toughest boy of the block . . . . They are living in the Arab world."
A UN official also said that prior to the most recent cycle of violence, the Palestinians had reduced at UN request the number of rocket attacks against Israeli settlements to the point where virtually none occurred over a more than six- week period. The UN, the official said, had argued that such restraint was required while Ambassador Habib pursued his peacemaking mission.
Leading American officials were reported to be divided in their initial reactions to the Israeli attack on beirut. US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was reported to be advocating stronger action -- the suspension of all aid to Israel, for example -- than was Haig.
The Israeli raid on Beirut was seen by many as humiliating for the United States because it came just after a State Department envoy had completed a mission to Israel to seek an understanding about the use of American weapons for "defensive" purposes, an arrangement that had been brought once again into question by the attack on the Iraqi reactor in June. It also came amid reports that the US was on the verge of deciding to supply Israel with the four F-16s. It thus created the impression here that the US has neither the strength nor the will to exert any significant influence over Israel. In the Arab world, however , there was a tendency to see American complicity in the Israeli air strikes