Post-summit: Reagan digs in on Begin and tight money; US toughens on Israel?
Washington — There is increasing evidence that both President Reagan and the American public are losing patience with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. From within the White House come reports that those charged with keeping tabs on public attitudes are hearing that a growing number of Americans now oppose Israel's use of US planes in raids against Palestinian guerrilla strongholds in Lebanon -- planes that were to be used only for defensive purposes.
Even as the administration expresses hope that Begin now may be willing to reduce the level of military action across the Lebanese border -- and perhaps even be willing to agree to a cease-fire -- it also is permitting Mr. Reagan's feelings about Mr. Begin to become known.
The President is pictured as being frustrated by Begin, finding it incomprehensible that the Israeli leader is acting so independently and, as Reagan sees it, so irresponsibly. Reagan understands that Begin was responding to provocation, but he feels that the Israeli attacks were far out of proportion with the provocation.
Deputy Secretary of State William Clark, talking to reporters over breakfast July 22, spoke of Reagan's reaction to Begin's action as "disappointment -- and there might be some frustration."
He said it had put the President in a quandary as to what to do.
The administration now appears to feel it is in a position to act on the question of sending more F-16 fighters and other US arms to Israel with less reference to pressures from the US Jewish community.
Saying the President was not "hearing" from Jewish leaders, in the sense of applying pressure, Mr. Clark added: "From what we are hearing they share some of this same quandary, if not frustration, concerning Mr. Begin that the administration does."
Reports from various Jewish communities throughout the United States coming into the White House, tend to confirm this observation. Many American Jews, it seems, who are strong supporters of Israel do not support what they see as Begin's undue bellicosity.
Further, many Jews appear saddened that Begin's military response has resulted in the deaths do so many civilians, including women and children.
What the administration seems to be saying now is that Begin's actions have created a political climate in the US that could make it easier for the President to discipline the Israeli prime minister.
In a sense, it seemed that Clark was sending a warning to Begin that he better shape up or he will face tough action by President Reagan.
"The President will do what he has to do," says Clark. "He has some strong felling on this."
Clark, who has known Reagan for years and was his chief administrative assistant when Reagan was California's governor, emphasized that the President was very independent when it came to making decisions.
He said that while Reagan had asserted his strong support for Israel as a candidate, he was now in a new position as President, where he would have to be certain that the weighed all the facts in any given situation before reaching a decision.
Here Clark pointed out that the US also had friends besides Israel in the Mideast.
"I know the President well," said Clark. "He will remain flexible on this. I'm sure he is going to remain most open. He realizes that his responsibilities are broad."
A reporter asked: "Could it be that the President might surprise us again, as he did with the appointment of [Sandra D.] O'Connor to the Supreme Court?"
Clark said he would not call such decisions "surprises." He said it was simply the Reagan way.
"He likes to make decisions," said Clark, asserting that Reagan always has been able to free himself f rom pressures and come to his own conclusions.