Washington — Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin could hardly be more unalike in personality. Scheduled to meet President Reagan for the first time this week, Israel's Prime Minister Begin is an intense and sometimes combative man who has led a life of struggle and turmoil. Always conscious of a long history of repression of Jews and fearful of yielding any advantage to adversaries, Mr. Begin is a stickler for details.
Mr. Reagan, in contrast, is secure relaxed, optimistic. He is a man who likes to delegate details to his subordinates.
But both the American and the Israeli leader have a flair for the dramatic moment. And they share a seemingly common view of the Soviet Union.
Despite American concern over the Israelis' recent use of US-supplied warplanes in Iraq and in Lebanon, both sides seem to be preparing more for conciliation than confrontation. If the Israeli advance team and American officials have their way, the Reagan-Begin talks scheduled for Sept. 9 and 10 will go well.
Administration officials say that the United States is eager to push the Egyptian-Israeli talks on the Palestinian issue forward. But the Reagan administration seems uncertain as to how to proceed on this issue. Thus it is unlikely to come into conflict with the Israelis over the Palestinian question at this stage. If administration officials are correct, Reagan will do most of the listening in his talks with Begin, and the Israeli leader will do most of the talking.
Begin's opposition to Reagan's proposed sale of advanced AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia is a potential source of conflict. But just about everyone -- from top American officials to leaders of the American Jewish community -- has warned Begin either directly or indirectly not to alienate Reagan by pushing his opposition to the sale too hard.
In his talks with Reagan, the Israeli leader is expected to emphasize Israel's value to the United States. According to an Israeli official, Begin will contend that the United States gets "unique" benefits from Israel. The Prime Minister is expected to argue that, unlike other Middle East countries, Israel supports American goals and aspirations.
Begin will further argue, the official said, that ISrael is the only sure and democratic ally the United States has in the Middle East. The Israelis long have contended that Saudi Arabia is unstable and that, in case of a crisis, it cannot be counted on.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's recent crackdown on his religious and political opponents has, meanwhile, dramatized the less democratic nature of Egypt's regime and the potential instability of that nation. Begin will argue that the US can count only on Israel, and the use of its bases, in a crisis.
"Should the US require help and cooperation, we are prepared to provide it," said an Israeli official.
A top Israeli official told recent visitors: "The Americans need us as their proxies in this part of the world. . . . Without us, they could never send their troops to the Middle East. Where would they land their planes? How would they keep the sand out of their rotors?"
Press reports from Israel indicate that Prime Minister Begin and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, will offer the US repair and supply facilities for its rapid deployment force, established following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to defend the oil-producing nations of the Persian Gulf.
According to the New York Times, Reagan and Begin also will explore the possibility of instituting regularly scheduled joint military exercises or the use of Israeli territory by American forces for their own maneuvers. The two also may pave the way for increased sharing of intelligence information, with the Israelis possibly getting more rapid and complete information from American reconnaissance satellites flying over the Middle East.
A senior State Department official said that the Reagan-Begin meetings had three main purposes for the United States: (1) to allow the two leaders to get to know each and establish a working relationship, (2) to allow Prime Minister Begin to outline his ideas on how best to proceed in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy (scheduled to resume Sept. 22), and (3) to explore with Israel security and strategic relations.