There can only be disappointment that the talks in the Middle East are stalemated to the point where the US President feels he has to take strong action. President Reagan's decision to withhold the delivery of about 75 F-16 fighter jets to Israel until it withdraws from Lebanon points to his mounting frustration over the US effort to stabilize Lebanon. It cannot be easy for him to give the Begin government this slap on the wrist, given his natural sympathies for Israel and the domestic political difficulties of criticizing Israel in any case. So it can be said that the President has acted with commendable courage.
Even Mr. Reagan's inaccurate characterization of the US law governing the sale of arms to Israel does not alter the validity of his action. The President is not, as he said, ''forbidden by law'' to release the planes on grounds that they must be used only for defensive purposes. The Arms Export Act merely gives a president the authority to cut off military sales and requires him to report any violations to Congress. But, despite the awkward legalism, Mr. Reagan is within his rights to delay the plane deliveries. He has done so before. And the fact that he has so long refrained from accusing Israel of violating the arms agreement by its invasion of Lebanon (and it did violate it) simply underscores the depth of his present concern about lack of progress in the Lebanese-Israeli talks - and his determination to do something about it.
In the short term the President will have to ride out a burst of Israeli anger. This may even complicate the negotiations. But it could have a salutary impact over time. At issue is not merely the disagreements in the Lebanese-Israeli talks. The matter goes deeper than that. It is the fundamental difference of view between the United States and Israel over the outlines of a Middle East peace. The two countries seem to be going down divergent paths - the US working for establishment of an independent, sovereign Lebanon and for resolution of the Palestinian question within the framework of UN Resolution 242 and Israel seeking a foothold in southern Lebanon and colonizing the occupied West Bank in disregard of the spirit of 242 (and in blatant violation of international law governing territorial occupation).
Do the US and Israel have common ground for seeking peace? If not, do they not need to find it? Is Israel prepared to withdraw from most of the land it still occupies as called for by 242 and the Reagan peace plan? And, if the Begin government is determined to pursue its own expansionist course - to the detriment of a negotiated settlement - should not the US pursue its national interests as it sees best? Aiding Israel, yes, but not at the expense of peace in the Middle East.
Washington is trying to induce King Hussein to join the peace talks. Indeed, down through the years Palestinian and other Arab leaders have lost many opportunities for peace by dithering, by refusing to plunge into negotiations whatever the apparent diplomatic risk. They could do so still. Yet it is not hard to appreciate the Arab concern that, without a concrete sign of America's willingness to restrain its client Israel (by achieving a withdrawal from Lebanon and a freeze on Jewish settlement of the West Bank), such talks would only prove a trap for the Palestinians. At the least the Arabs would want to know that Israel is negotiating under 242.
It is in this context that the President's action on the F-16s should be seen. Mr. Reagan is signaling that his patience is running out - and that he is prepared for tougher steps to achieve a pullout in Lebanon. The move is justified. But it is to be hoped it will be followed by a US-Israeli understanding on the ground rules for a broader peace negotiation.