It is no secret that Prime Minister Men-achem Begin is lukewarm to President Reagan's peace initative for the Middle East. It is therefore not altogether surprising that the Israeli leader is pursuing policies designed to undermine that effort. His decision to continue planting Jewish settlements in the West Bank is a direct challenge to the President's call for a freeze on such settlements. If not firmly countered by the United States, it could well accomplish Mr. Begin's purpose.
Israel's expansionist policy has long frustrated Israel's supporters abroad and many Israelis themselves. But it is an especially defiant course now when new opportunities have opened up for peace negotiations. For the first time the US has committed itself to a peace formula that does not include an independent Palestinian state - a concession for which Israel did not even have to bargain. For the first time it looks as if the Arab states are prepared for concerted moves to get genuine talks under way. King Hussein of Jordan, realizing that time is short if the Palestinian Arabs are to recover their land, is anxious to become an active participant in the negotiations. The PLO is weighing its support for such participation.
Plainly it will be harder to get the Arabs aboard if Israel is not restrained from its policy of gradually absorbing the conquered West Bank. Last week the Israeli deputy prime minister and housing minister, David Levy, announced that five more permanent settlements would be established in the territory. Plans call for the settlement of 100,000 Jews in the West Bank by 1985 around and between Arab population centers. At present there are 103 settlements with some 25,000 settlers.
Even these figures do not tell the whole story. They do not include the some 70,000 to 80,000 Jews who live in housing built in East Jerusalem, which Israel has unilaterally annexed. That land lies within the pre-1967 borders to which Israel is basically supposed to withdraw under UN resolution 242. Though Israel controls East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and makes no distinction between pre- and post-1967 boundaries, it is still contested land. Therefore, accurately speaking, there are at least 100,000 Jewish settlers - not 25,000 - in the West Bank. Most of these are not zealots like those pushing into the Arab town of Hebron but Jews lured into the suburbs of Jerusalem by cheap housing.
Behind the statistics lies a heart-stirring human tragedy - the tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs whose homes and lands are being confiscated out from under them and the tragedy of the Jews who unreason-ingly believe they can gain security only in the possession of land and at the expense of others. Surely the present course will merely perpetuate the hatred and fear which have so long plagued the region and which keep Jews and Arabs from living side by side peaceably and productively as many have shown they can do.
President Reagan clearly is being put to the test. Mr. Begin does not yet know how determined and tough the American leader is and, as one might expect after a major presidential initiative, he is probing to find out. Will Mr. Reagan meet the test? Not if he confines US policy to the kind of rebuke which the US State Department delivered last week - calling the Israeli settlement decision ''most unwelcome.'' There have been many such verbal wrist slaps in the past, regarded by Mr. Begin with cool disdain.
It is time the United States faced up to this obstacle to peacemaking. If Israel stands by its right to pursue the policies it deems in Israel's interests , the US has no less right to act in its own best interests. At the least, it should not go on subsidizing the Jewish colonization of land which has been lived on for centuries by others, which international law says belongs to the Palestinian Arabs, and ultimate political disposition of which is now the subject of intense diplomacy.
The question is, how serious is Mr. Reagan about his peace initiative? Serious enough to prevent it from being scuttled?