The Reagan White House has at least momentarily deflected the problem of how to react to Israel's surprise attack on Iraq's nuclear facility to the US Senate. However, the administration continues to study the incident, particularly several gnawing questions:
* It wants to find out how far along Iraq was in developing the capability of manufacture an atom bomb -- to ascertain how pressing it was for Prime Minister Menahem Begin to make his move at this time.
* It wants to look closer at charges, some coming from within Israel itself (one from the prine minister's political rival, Shimon Peres) that Mr. Begin timed the mission to enhance his reelection prospects.
* It wants to be certain of the facts.Could it be, for example, that the Israeli raid was not as effective as Begin has claimed -- that, as at least one report has it, only the shell of Iraq's nuclear plant was destroyed?
Overall, Washington reaction to Israel's raid has been relatively mild. President Reagan has suspended delivery of four F-16 fighter-bombers to Israel.
But, in a letter sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois, the administration shows little inclination to conclude that Israel violated the 1952 Arms Export Control Act that prohibits US arms being used for aggression.
The judgment being made in government circles, and editorially in the press, is one that is critical of Israel for indulging in such preemptive action. However, most commentaries at the same time express some acceptance of Israel's view, as enunciated by Prime Minister Begin, that this was the only way to eliminate an Iraqi nuclear threat.
The Washington view included the following elements:
* That no matter how much Begin may have violated his agreement with the US, threatened the success of Special Ambassador Philip Habib's Mideast peace mission, and acted in opposition to international law, the degree to which he is censured by the President and Congress will probably be relatively insignificant.
Observes here are pointing out the strength of the powerful lobby here which makes lawmakers always mindful that they may find it politically to their disadvantage if they take harsh action against Israel.
The President, too, is eyeing domestic politics as he warily circles this problem. By bucking it along to the Senate, where it may lie for a while before being officially addressed, Reagan appears to be buying time on the question of whether Israel violated its arms agreement with the US.
The administration is not saying how long the delay in the delivery of the F- 16s, originally scheduled for June 12, might last.
Elsewhere around the United States, public reaction to disclosure of the raid has been mixed. Some people are asking, as people here in Washington are, whether Israel has its own nuclear bomb -- and if so what moral right it can claim to take this action against Iraq. Couldn't there be some nations, they ask, who feel threatened by Israel having the bomb?
Also being posed is this questions: If the US doesn't impose strong sanctions against Israel, what would it be able to do if some nation took similar action against Israel?
Also, a substantial segment of the public applauds the Israeli action, seeing in it a daring effectiveness that should be praised -- particularly since it is being done, as these Americans see it, by a nation t hat stands firmly as a US ally against the Soviets.