The least the United States could do was to hold up the shipment of four F-16 s that would otherwise be on the way to Israel today. It was F-16s which reportedly bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor this week. The result was what Secretary of State Haig said may have been a "substantial violation" of Israel's defensive arms agreement with the US. The symbolism of immediately sending more such planes would have been just too callous.
Yet this is only a first gesture while the White House and Congress develop an appropriate response to the raid which Washington had "condemned" as soon as it became public. The promised review of the situation requires the utmost thoroughness. It would be unfortunate indeed if the measured action of suspending rather than canceling the planes were taken by Israel -- or intended by the US -- as tacit condoning of the bombing. Some congressional voices have recklessly given outright approval to the attack before any review has taken place.
In reporting to Congress under the Arms Export Control Act, Secretary Haig noted the review would consider Israel's contention that the raid was necessary for its defense and had to be carried out when it was. Whether such "preemptive" strikes can be justified should be part of the review. So should the questions of whether diplomatic means had really been exhausted and whether, as domestic opponents of Prime Minister Begin charge, the raid was timed to boost his chances in the forthcoming election.
At all events, Mr. Begin showed every appearance of politically exploiting the adventure once it had occurred. And he is giving the Reagan administration a stiff early lesson in how Israeli leaders can make it hard for America to remain Israel's bets friend. In this instance, he has with one violent stroke defied a whole range of US interests. For example, the raid has put a cloud over Reagan envoy Philip Habib's resumed Middle East peace mission; made things awkward for the US's other partner in the Camp David process, Egyptian President Sadat; shaken an emerging improved US relationship with Iraq; undercut US efforts to gain Arab adherents to the idea that the Soviet Union is the main threat to Middle East stability; provided a handy if unjustified excuse for Moscow to call its "preemptive" activities, such as any potential action in Poland, merely defensive.
But all this is subsidiary to the evaluation of the Israeli action itself in the light of international law, US law, and US-Israeli agreements. This is necessary to determine Washington's next moves and its stance on the issue at the United Nations.
The admirable qualities of Israel and its people prevail over the ups and downs of its leaders in the two-way street of US-Israeli friendship. The task of the Reagan administration is to do its part in this relationship, realizing it is no favor to f riends to encourage deeds that are unworthy of them.