If there is a sticking point in this week's Reagan-Begin talks in the White House, it is more likely to be definition of Saudi Arabia's role in overall US strategic planning in the Middle East and the Gulf than the chronically difficult question of the Palestinians.
Every thing pointed in that direction as President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin headed for their first meeting ever Sept. 9.
The proposed controversial US sale of five sophisticated AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes to Saudi Arabia -- to which Israel objects and on which Mr. Begin is expected to challenge Mr. Reagan -- is the immediate point of difference between the two heads of government.
But behind it is an issue of principle: the intent of the Reagan administration to include Saudi Arabia now as the third favored nation on which the US bases its strategic planning to meet the Soviet threat to the Middle East and the Gulf. The other two, of course, are Israel and Egypt.
The Israelis got the message that principle was at stake when US Undersecretary of State for Security Affairs James Buckley described the proposed AWACS sale to the Saudis as "a cornerstone of the Presidents's policy to strengthen the strategic environment of the Middle East."
If this struggle over Saudi Arabia's role is forced from behind the closed doors of the White House out into the forum of US domestic politics in the weeks ahead, there are already indications of the asperities it could engender.
Time magazine last week carried a three-page essay by its diplomatic correspondent on "What to Do About Israel." It said: "The sad fact is that Israel is well on its way to becoming not just a dubious asset but an outright liability to American security interests, both in the Middle East and worldwide. The fault is largely Begin's." This week's cover of Newsweek magazine pictures Mr. Begin inside a Star of David with the headline, "Roadlobck to peace?"
Former Under Secretary of State George Ball -- admittedly a frequent Critic of Israel -- wrote in a column of the New York Times Sept. 6: "We cannot continue to support Israel politically and militarily without sharing the consequences of its actions and decisions. It is time to discuss its policies openly and candidly."
In another column in the same issue of the New York Times, William Safire -- ever an eloquent Begin backer -- took some swipes at Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He then added: "President Reagan and National Security Adviser Richard Allen have apparently crumbled to the view that the only way to win the affection of Arab dictators is to offend and frighten the Israelis."
The battle, despite the broader principle at stake, will be fought this week in terms of the AWACS planes. There have been reports that some leaders of the Jewish-American community had advised Mr. Begin not to get locked into a fight to the finish over the planes because of the risk of permanently alienating Ronald Reagan at the outset of his presidency.
But the Jewish Telegraph Agency, in a dispatch from Jerusalem on the eve of Mr. Begin's departure for the US, interpreted the prime minister's most recent remarks to his Cabinet on the question as seeming to "signal that Israel would throw its full weight into a struggle against a proposed [US-Saudi AWACS] deal."
Questioned about his intentions upon his arrival in New York Sept. 6, Mr. Begin said: "We can only repeat our position that it will endanger very seriously the security of Israel." Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir -- now with Mr. Begin in the US -- was quoted as saying last week that US efforts to prove to Israeli Air Force officers that AWACS planes in Saudi hands would be less a danger to Israel than Israelis believe in fact had exactly the opposite effect.
Opponents to the deal in the two houses of US Congress are confident they can muster the votes to block it. One of them, Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon said on television recently that the battle would go better for them if Mr. Begin himself kept a low profile. To nullify the deal both houses need to vote against it. Presumably White House strategy will be to secure a positive vote in the Senate where the Republicans have a majority.
Israel was much happier with its own exclusive role vis-a-vis the US in the Middle East that persisted until 1973. Until then the Israelis had a virtual monopoly of US interest and commitment in the area. Half grudgingly, Israel accepted the widening of that US interest and commitment to include Egypt, once Egyptian President Sadat had embarked on the peace process with Israel. But the Israelis have not been able to reconcile themselves to the arrival in the arena of Saudi Arabia. The Israeli perception is that whereas Egypt has moved through the Camp David accords into a position of recognition of and peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia remains a mortal foe.
The basis for the Saudi demands on the US for strategic recognition is three-pronged: (1) the dependence of the US and most of its major industrial allies on Saudi oil; (2) the huge proportion of the world's cash reserves now controlled by Saudi Arabia, much of it invested in the US; (3) Saudi Arabia's geographical position along the southern shore of the Gulf, on whose entire littoral it offers the only major piece of real estate friendly to the US -- a fact of much greater importance to US strategic planners since the collapse of the Shah and the Soviet thrust into Afghanistan.
Against the background of these three elements, the government of Saudi Arabia nudges the US whenever it can with reminders of its constructive pro-US potential -- for example, in keeping oil prices down within OPEC or in helping with the recent Israel-PLO cease-fire in Lebanon.
All this is viewed with dismay by the Israelis. They have been further irritated by the Reagan administration's apparent reluctance until now to involve Israel directly in any of the plans for the proposed US Rapid Deployment Force for the Gulf area. This, despite a willingness to use Egyptian facilities for the force and to stage joint exercises with the Egyptian armed forces.
Reports from Israel suggest that Mr. Begin will pull out all the stops he can to get President Reagan to count Israel in when it comes to US strategic planning -- and to count Saudi Arabia out at least for the time being.
In response to Mr. Begin's hard sell, the US is now leaning toward counting Israel in without counting Saudi Arabia out. Washington now is reportedly considering:
* Joint US-Israeli military exercises on Israeli territory.
* US use of Israeli facilities in Rapid Deployment Force planning.
* Greater sharing of intelligence with Israel, with possible Israeli access to US reconnaissance satellites.
In return, of course, the US would expect Israeli acquiescence in the AWACS deal with the Saudis. But even if Mr. Begin falls into line, the final word will be with the anti-AWACS forces in the US Congress.