Washington — Intense nightly television coverage of the fighting in Lebanon has opened a new front in the Mideast struggle -- in American living rooms.
So far, opinion samplings show that the US public still sides with Israel in the overall Arab-Israeli struggle, while it has growing reservations about the June 6 Israeli march into Lebanon.
A Newsweek poll conducted by the Gallup Organization found that 60 percent of Americans disapproved of Israel's move into Lebanon. Thirty percent approved and 10 percent had no opinion. The poll, published Aug. 9, also found that 43 percent felt the US should suspend or cut off military aid to Israel.
Earlier, a mid-July Roper poll had shown an opening for a wedge in American support for Israel. That survey indicated that Americans, by 63 percent to 22 percent, think US support for Israel is in Israel's best interests. But by 47 percent to 39 percent, Americans think US support is not in the best interests of the US.
Israel's supporters in America see a danger that continued heavy fighting in Beirut could weaken Israel's political strength among US voters - following an acknowledged erosion among American intellectuals.
''Within the elite community here in Washington, there's been an erosion of support for Israel,'' says Ben Wattenberg, political analyst and co-editor of Public Opinion magazine. ''Eventually that has to have some trickle down effect on the general public.''
Responding to concerns about dropping public support for Israel, Jewish organizations in the US have stepped up public relations efforts in recent days.
Their communications efforts on the Lebanon crisis include sending delegations of American Jewish leaders to Israel and appearances of US Jewish spokesmen on radio and television. There have also been visits by retired Israeli military experts to the US to explain current Israeli military action, and Washington briefings with American officials -- such as Secretary of State George Shultz's session Aug. 5 with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Republican Jewish Coalition.
However, the depth of US support for Israel stems from more than overt lobbying, whether in Washington or elsewhere. It is lodged partly in broad US public support for the state of Israel, going back many years. Also, Jewish influence in US political affairs is enhanced by the closely organized, highly communications-oriented nature of the Jewish community itself, which serves as a general lobby. The special political qualities of the community, such as its concentration in key states, lends it further leverage, political experts say.
The leading concern now being raised by Jewish leaders across the country is whether the up-close television coverage of the Beirut fighting has distorted American perceptions of the war.
''When you see a war brought home to you six feet from your nose, that's disturbing,'' says David Garth, New York media specialist. Mr. Garth has undertaken a review of network TV news coverage of the Lebanese crisis for the Anti-defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
''So far American public opinion is fairly supportive of the Israeli action, '' Garth says. ''American Jews are particularly sensitive to this kind of thing going on. Nobody can be happy about war. Somehow, the American public seems to say that Israel is doing the right thing, even though it shouldn't wage war.''
The size of the official Jewish lobby in Washington -- as distinct from the larger network of Jewish leaders and community organizations, as well as pro-Israeli legislators and staff aides in Washington -- is generally exaggerated, according to some observers. ''There are some professionals, like AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Commission), a registered lobby for a foreign government,'' says Mr. Wattenberg. ''And there are other American Jewish organizations here. But the Jewish lobby is only a 10th the numbers of people promoting oil, doctors, unions in Washington.''
One official Washington lobbyist for Israel outlined his goals this way: ''Our main thrust is to get people to look at the basic national interests of the United States, and the strategic interests. We're trying to go beyond the civilian casualties. The PLO and Syria are allies of the Soviet Union. Israel is delivering them a setback. More lives would be lost if Israel had not moved into Lebanon.''
''The American people are standing in the same supportive position toward Israel as before,'' the lobbyist says. ''The intellectual elite doesn't like Israel right now. The media are no better or no worse than the rest of the elite. Israel's position is basically justified despite the civilian casualties. But if (the intellectual elite and the media) keep it up, they will erode public support for Israel.''
Washington pays close political attention to Jewish interests for a number of reasons. ''Jews do, by happenstance, live in states with major concentrations of electoral votes -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, California,'' says Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center. ''They vote in high percentages. They are political activists. They have a lot of money -- which they give to charities, education, hospitals, as well as politics. And by occupation, Jews tend to be professionals, concentrated in the most influence-forming positions.''
At the national organization level, the American Jewish community is the most structured among US ethnic groups, says Lobomyr R. Wynar, director of Kent State University's ethnic studies center. There are more than 300 national Jewish organizations in the US.