Israel's air strike into Iraq has dealt another blow to the Reagan administration's plan to form a "strategic consensus" with Middle Eastern nations aimed at countering the Soviet Union.
While the full implications of the Israeli raid are still far from clear, administration officials fear that the Soviet Union now will find new openings to exploit among several Arab nations.
What seems certain is that the administration's thrust toward developing the strategic consensus has been further complicated, if not disrupted. The tension between Syria and Israel over Lebanon earlier had shifted much Arab attention away from the administration's effort aimed at aligning Middle Eastern nations against the Soviets. According to one State Department official, the Israel raid has further intensified that tendency, reminding everyone that an Arab-Israeli accommodation must precede a new alignment against Moscow.
"The administration's vision of a strategic consensus has received a very severe blow," said William B. Quandt, former Middle East director for the National Security Council staff under the Carter administration.
"Some of our friends in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia and Jordan, among others -- are going to be highly embarrassed," said Mr. Quandt, who is currently directing a major study on Saudi Arabia at the Brookings Institution. "They are going to have trouble continuing to cooperate with us."
"If the strategic consensus ever meant anything at all, it didn't mean total agreement among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel," he said. "But it did mean first reducing the visibility of, or priority given to, the Arab-Israeli conflict and, second, trying to build on some areas of commonality.
"This king of action -- the Israeli raid -- reminds the Arabs that the real problem for them is Israel and not the Soviet Union."
Quandt and others predict that the Saudi attempt to procure airborne radar planes from the United States now will prove more difficult. The Saudis will be denouncing Israel, he said, even as they try to lobby Congress for the planes.
Joseph Sisco, former undersecretary of state and onetime Middle East troubleshooter for Henry Kissinger, said the Israeli raid "underscores the need for the US to get on with the job of stimulating the peace process" in the Middle East.
Mr. Sisco told a Voice of America panel that, despite the raid, the US retains the "central role" in mediating between the Arabs and Israelis.
Meanwhile, some Arab nations look to the United States to take punitive action against Israel for the use of American planes in the raid. US law requires that American weapons and other military equipment sold to foreign nations be used only for defensive purposes. But Israel argues that it indeed was defending itself by preventing the development of Iraqi nuclear bombs that could be used against the Jewish state.
One possible flaw in that argument is that Israel itself is widely believed to possess a nuclear weapons capability with which it could defend itself. But friends of Israel in this country counter that because of its small size, it would suffer more from a nuclear exchange than would any of the Arab states.
While there is considerable concern in the administration and some in Congress over the Israeli attack, few observers seem to think Capitol Hill will push for an interpretation of the laws that would punish Israel. In previous cases when American-supplied equipment was used in Israeli raids into Lebanon, nothing was done. Few senators or congressmen will say so openly, but a number of them are reported by staff aides to be quietly delighting in the Israeli raid. Iraq is not popular on Capitol Hill, and Israel is seen by many there as a small, feisty nation -- "a tough little kid outnumbered by bullies on his block," in the words of one congressional aide.
According to United Press International, a White House aide indicated June 9 that President Reagan does not intend to stop military assistance to Israel. But the State Department is required by law to prepare a report to Congress on whether the Israelis' June 7 raid violated US laws. The report would not necessarily be made public.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker (R) of Tennessee said Reagan could recommend a suspension of arms aid to Israel -- a highly unlikely possibility -- or Congress could cut such aid through a joint resolution. But Senator Baker declined to say whether he expected a ny such move.