Republican Senator Percy was not overstating the case when he said that it would be ''extraordinarily incorrect'' to announce a US sale of 75 F-16 jets to Israel during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Other members of Congress called for an end to all American aid for Israel. Yet some also stoutly defended Israel. And there seemed less overt concern than at the time of Israel's raids on Iraq and Beirut last year, though the far greater human cost of the assault in Lebanon was beginning to be counted in civilian as well as military casualties.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will have an opportunity to air matters fully for the American public when it holds promised early hearings. Meanwhile, the administration is wise to be tacitly acknowledging Mr. Percy's advice by not sending Congress the formal notification of the F-16 sale that ordinarily would have followed last month's informal notification by now.
For diplomatic nuance-clockers there seemed to be another slight distancing from Israel's recent course in the State Department's Tuesday press briefing. There was a reference to next Monday's scheduled meeting between President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin as tentative and hoped for rather than absolutely locked in. A presumption was that the meeting was less likely if Israel showed no restraint in Lebanon, even though the US seems to have abandoned the firm call for Israeli withdrawal uttered when Mr. Reagan was in Europe.
It is well for the US and Israel to be sounding in favor of letting Lebanon return to its own independent politics without military intrusion by any outside forces. But the military domination by Israel and its Lebanese Christian proxies is such as to tempt the establishment of a puppet government subservient to Israel unless Israel follows through fully on its denials of any such intention. The US can play its role as friend to Israel by fostering its defensive security and discouraging the kind of offensive ventures that may appear to buy present advantage but sow the seeds of further turmoil.