New York — A calm look at an explosive situation is something one seldom sees in network documentaries these days. The comparatively new yearning for massive audiences for network news too often seems to have overcome the traditional determination to maintain solid journalistic standards. Glitz and jazziness in the race for Nielsen numbers is rapidly becoming the order of the day.
CBS Reports: The American-Israeli Connection (CBS, Thursday, 10-11 p.m.) is a dazzlingly cool exception.
This thoughtful, timely, and controversial documentary starts off with several strikes against it -- so much is happening every day which involves Israel that it is almost impossible for a documentary to keep up with events. Although much of this report was prepared months ago (interviews with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, for example), CBS has managed to include the current Israeli invasion of Lebanon (and updates will probably be inserted before air time).
In addition, the documentary is anchored by correspondent Andrew Lack, who is now also executive producer of CBS Reports. Even though Roger Colloff is listed as executive producer of this particular show, the confusion of duties of correspondent and executive producer is not a good one, because such vagueness of responsibility tends to minimize the control of possible excesses by the correspondent.
This is an especially ticklish time for CBS News. It has recently been challenged by still-unanswered accusations of distortion (in the case of the recent ''Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,'' which has been attacked by both General Westmoreland and TV Guide).
But CBS News has dared to tread where many have circled anxiously -- ''The American-Israeli Connection'' deals head-on with one of the touchiest aspects of American foreign policy, the Jewish lobby.
At the obvious risk of being called anti-Semitic, the documentary tries to explain why 6 million American Jews are so committed to the political welfare and the morale of 3 million Israeli Jews; why American foreign policy in the Middle East in the past has been so firmly tied to its Israeli connection; and why that policy seems to be changing.
Israel, according to Mr. Lack, gets more military and economic aid than any other ally. The Jewish-American lobby is more effective than any other congressional lobby, despite the fact that it is often denounced as being too influential, too aggressive, too powerful. American Jewish leaders respond that it is a citizens' lobby, like many others, and ''we think we nurture the political power of the American people. Part of our security lies in the defense of Israel.''
The film records the ways that the Anti-Defamation League supports Israel by inviting congressional members to tour Israel. It is pointed out, however, that the organization takes these same congressmen to Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the same trip so that they can make up their own minds about American policy in the Middle East. Also recorded is the support of Israel by fundamentalist Christians who base that support on the prophecies in the Bible.
According to US Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware in his search for an explanation of the American-Israeli connection: ''We must remember that our leaders have been direct products of WWII, with visceral reactions to the plight of Jews. . . . Now things are changing.'' According to the senator, oil was not an issue, and there was no need to trade off moral commitment against oil. Now, there is a head-on collision.
This report does not hesitate to state calmly the facts as it sees them: It is necessary in Washington to have the support of the pro-Israel lobby in order to pass any foreign aid bill. And Israel, it says, now gets more military and economic aid than any other ally: around $2.2 billion this year, more than half in long-term loans, plus an $8 billion indebtedness to the United States.
Both General Sharon and Mr. Begin come through as men dedicated to the security of their country. Says Sharon: ''Your support does not entitle you to pressure us when we are endangered. . . . If I have to choose between our credibility (in America) and security, I choose security.''
Says Prime Minister Begin, the sole survivor in his family of the Holocaust, refusing to give further details: ''We contribute to your national defense. . . . We are a valued ally. I don't want to be the underdog. We are a free, proud democracy. We want to be human beings. . . .''
Mr. Lack makes it clear that Begin cannot be considered an aberration. He is supported by a whole generation of Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries. ''He is Israel,'' Lack says. ''Whoever succeeds him is likely to follow his policies.''
Lack concludes: ''Unless Americans and Israelis are realistic with each other about where our interests are the same and where they are not, the American-Israeli connection could be torn apart.''
''The American-Israeli Connection'' is so unusual because it has dared to take an honest, if indelicate, look at a delicate relationship. It is bound to be attacked from all sides -- by the Palestinians because it does not focus on their rights; by the Israelis because it paints a tough, cold picture of their determination to survive at any cost; by the American Jewish community because it realistically records the confusion and uncertainty in some circles when Israeli policies seem to run counter to democratic principles.
All of these groups will have valid points to make. But the fact remains that this documentary pinpoints the beginning of what may prove to be a new era in American-Israeli relations. Friendship and self-interest seem to be clashing, and choices have to be made. This CBS Report is a challenging start.