It sounded startling when the news first broke. The headline read: ''Reagan Refuses F-16s to Israel until Pullback.'' The text under the headline included a quotation from remarks the President had made in answer to a question following a speech in Beverly Hills, Calif. The questioner had asked about delay in authorizing release of a second round of 75 F-16 aircraft to Israel. The President replied: ''You must realize that under the law - the law exists now - those weapons must be for defensive purposes and this is, again, one of the obstacles presented by the stalemate in Lebanon.
''While those forces (Israeli) are in the position of occupying another country that now has asked them to leave, we are forbidden by law to release those planes. They are F-16s, the planes that are on order. And it's as simple as the other forces returning to their own countries and letting Lebanon be Lebanon.''
Anyone reading those quotations would reasonably assume that American-built F-16 fighter planes are lined up on some airfield or runway in the United States ready for delivery to Israel and that the delivery is being held up in order to bring pressure on Israel to cease its occupation of southern Lebanon.
The facts are different.
No delivery is scheduled for any of those planes to Israel before 1985. No order holding up such a delivery has been issued.
Only one thing has happened. Had there been no invasion of Lebanon by Israel beginning on June 6 of last year the State Department would have advised the Senate on last June 16 that an intention existed to begin delivery of those aircraft in 1985. That notice has not been sent to the Senate.
The notice was held up because an invasion was under way which ''involved a large quantity and variety of defense articles that had been furnished to Israel under the Foreign Military Sales program.''
The State Department under date of June 15 informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the use in the Israeli operations in Lebanon of that ''large quantity'' of US materials raised the possibility that ''a substantial violation by Israel'' of the provisions of the Arms Export Control Act ''may have occurred.''
The State Department is required to report to the Senate violations of that act. The act prohibits use of American arms in ''any act of aggression against any other state.'' The State Department letter of June 15 said that ''we are continuing to review the situation.'' That ''review'' has continued ever since. No finding of a ''substantial violation'' has been made. Nor has a finding of non-violation been made.
Thus the President was mistaken in assuming that any delivery of planes was being held up. He was also premature in thinking that a finding of violation of American law had been found. The situation is still that a violation ''may have occurred'' but has not yet been judged to have occurred.
So all that has happened in fact is that Israel has been reminded by the President that it may have violated its contract with the US by using ''a large quantity and variety'' of US weapons during the invasion of Lebanon.
The residual question is whether this reminder has any value as coinage in the maneuverings over trying to revive the President's plan of last September for a Middle East peace. The immediate effort is to try to persuade King Hussein of Jordan to begin negotiations with the US and Israel aimed at autonomy for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan.
King Hussein has indicated that he would be happy to join if President Reagan would insist on an immediate suspension of the building of housing in those Arab territories by Israel for Israelis. Mr. Reagan has proposed the suspension and asked for it. But Israel has ignored the request.
President Reagan could announce a finding of violation of contract by Israeli and suspend all American aid, economic and financial as well as military, to Israel pending conclusion of a peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. If he did that, there would be a famous row between Washington and Tel Aviv. To do that would have coinage value in the power world.
But simply to remind the Israelis that a violation ''may have occurred'' is not enough to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon or a suspending of the building of housing for Israelis in occupied territory. It is unlikely that King Hussein will let himself get pulled into negotiaions unless or until these two things happen.
This maneuver was not the challenge to Israel which the headline implied.