Behind his harsh verbal attack on the United States Dec. 20, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is attempting to regain the diplomatic initiative after the shock (to Israel at least) of Washington's reaction to the virtual annexation of the Golan Heights.
Mr. Begin also may be building a case to be used if he decides not to budge from the Sinai as agreed next spring.
Begin is preaching the go-it-alone attitude for Israel as a nation that is, neverthless, enormously dependent on US military and financial aid.
Without Washington on his mind, Begin, some Western diplomats in the Middle East fear, could set aside a July 24 cease-fire in southern Lebanon and attack Palestinian bases; could go after Syrian antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley; and could renege on evacuation of Sinai as prescribed under Camp David.
Begin informed his Cabinet Dec. 20 that he had told US Ambassador Samuel Lewis that ''No sword of Damocles will be hung over our heads,'' in response to Washington's announcement two days earlier that it was suspending a strategic cooperation agreement with Israel. ''We register the fact that you (Washington) have renounced the memorandum of understanding. The people of Israel have lived for 3,700 years without a memorandum of understanding with America and will continue to live without it for another 3,700 years.''
Mr. Begin said Israel intends to scrap the memorandum altogether. This is the second dramatic unilateral act by Israel in one week. Last week Israel announced it was extending its civil law over the Golan Heights - a move tantamount to annexation of the territory it captured from Syria in 1967.
The Reagan administration's subsequent suspension of the month-old strategic cooperation agreement, said Mr. Begin, ''is breaking the word of the President'' and he told the US envoy that this makes the third instance in six months that the US has ''punished'' Israel.'' He said Washington's suspension of delivery of F-16 fighter planes (following the June 7 Israeli bombing of the Iraq nuclear reactor) and the suspension of F-15 deliveries (following Israel's bombing July 17 of a Beirut neighborhood in which the Palestine Liberation Organization makes its headquarters) were other examples of US pressure.
''And again you (Washington) declare that you are 'punishing' Israel,'' Mr. Begin said. ''What kind of talk is that, 'punishing' Israel? Are we a vassal state? A banana republic? Are we boys of 14 years old, that if they don't behave they have their knuckles smacked?''
Mr. Begin said he would not allow the US to make Israel ''hostage to the memorandum of understanding.'' He said he would not ask the Knesset to rescind its act extending Israeli legal control over the Golan Heights. ''As to the future, please tell the (US) secretary of state that the Golan law shall remain in force.''
Then, in a statement that may not allay worries in Washington over Israel's intentions toward southern Lebanon, Mr. Begin said, ''I ask the secretary of state be informed that we shall not attack but we shall counterattack.'' He also held firm on autonomy negotiations by telling the US ambassador he would not accede to a ''demand'' over the structure of an administrative council.
Some commentators in Israel say the Begin government was genuinely surprised by US response to the Golan law. The independent newspaper Ha'aretz saw the US reaction as having emerged gradually; gaining force as time went by, first from relatively mild statements by President Reagan, to the American vote in the UN Security Council demanding Israel rescind the law, to the suspension of the cooperation agreement - a move which Begin says canceled $200 million worth of US-Israeli military trade.
''The belief that the area of 'doing' is reserved for Israel alone - while the US is satisfied with words - was revealed as nonsense,'' Ha'aretz said.