US Marine Capt. Charles Johnson was determined to defend his position. When an Israeli tank headed straight toward him he took his .45 caliber automatic out of its holster, loaded it, and told the Israeli officer facing him that the tank could come through ''only over my dead body.''
That happened on Feb. 2. The captain's behavior has been commended by US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and by the captain's highest commander, the President of the United States.
The Israelis claim that the American captain was out of bounds in the affair, that his breath smelled of alcohol, and that the US should apologize. US spokesmen flatly deny this version.
Whatever the precise merits of the affair (was the American captain outside or inside the demarcation line?), it grows out of one simple fact: The US Marines are in Lebanon for one purpose, and the Israeli forces facing them are there for an entirely different and conflicting purpose.
The US Marines are in Lebanon to try to help in bolstering the independence of the state of Lebanon and in restoring the control of the government of Lebanon over all the territory of Lebanon.
The Israeli troops are in Lebanon in an attempt to establish a permanent Israeli influence in the southern part of Lebanon. They are asking as a condition for withdrawal of their troops the right to station permanent military observer posts in southern Lebanon. They want Lebanon open to their trade and tourism. They want Lebanon to ''normalize'' relations with Israel.
If the government of Lebanon were to accede to Israel's present demands, Lebanon would not be in sovereign control either over all of its territory or over its foreign policy.
There may be a second reason behind the incidents involving Israeli tanks pushing against the positions held by US Marines. Israel's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, prepared, launched, and carried out last year's invasion of southern Lebanon. There are suspicions in Washington that he may right now be preparing a second invasion of Lebanon, this time to head into the Bekaa Valley (the great valley lying between the two ridges of the Lebanon range of mountains) and drive out the Syrians and residual PLO units in the valley.
Suspicion of his intentions is enhanced by the findings of the special commission on the Shaba and Shatila massacres. He was found guilty of not foreseeing the consequences of admitting Lebanese Phalangists to the camp.
If Minister Sharon does have any intention of further invasion, then it is understandable that he would want to cover his western flank by pushing the US Marines as far away as possible. A series of incidents perhaps could cause American public opinion to agitate for removal of the Marines. If they did come out, Mr. Sharon would be a little freer to do what he pleased in that part of Lebanon. Also, he would be spared observation by the US Marines of his future activities.
Israel does not like having American observers watching its military operations. The record includes the case of the Israeli attack of June 7, 1967, on the USS Liberty, an electronics reconnaissance ship. The ship was patrolling off the Israeli coast during the ''six-day war.'' The fighting had started on June 5. By June 7 the Israelis had smashed the Egyptian air forces and driven right through the Sinai peninsula to the Suez canal. They were redeploying for the subsequent invasion of Syria.
Beginning at 6 o'clock on the morning of June 7, Israeli aircraft began reconnoitering the Liberty. There were repeated aerial inspections of the ship during the morning.
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon Israeli jets attacked the ship. For the next hour and 20 minutes the ship was attacked repeatedly both from the air and by torpedo boats. There were 287 men aboard the USS Liberty during the attack. Of these 34 were killed, 171 wounded. Israel claimed it was a ''mistake.'' Responsible officers aboard the ship believed it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to sink them.
Two days after the Israeli tank challenged US Marine Captain Johnson last week, the Reagan administration in Washington proposed a $9.2 billion US foreign aid program for fiscal year 1984. Israel would get $2.485 billion of the total of US foreign aid for the next year, the largest grant to any one country. The second largest grant is $2.075 billion for Egypt.
The grant to Egypt is part of the deal involving Egypt's recognition of Israel. In large measure, the US pays Egypt compensation for recognizing and making peace with Israel. Hence the real cost to the US taxpayer for Israel amounts to more than half of the total foreign aid budget.