The United States reacted with utmost caution yesterday to Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon, while Arab nations called on the great powers to intervene to stop it.

Despite high-level meetings at the White House and State Department, American officials sought to discourage any sense of crisis and described the U.S. role at this stage as a messenger between the Arabs and Israelis.

"We have not called for a halt" to the invasion, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance said at the White House. State Department official comments accepted Israel's rationale for the invasion, noting that Palestinian military units in southern Lebanon have treatened the security of the Jewish state. There were no words of condemnation of the military action at either the White House or State Department.

U.S. statement indicated a hope that the Israeli incursion would be short-lived. Despite the welter of meetings, however, there was no clear U.S. response to indications that Israel plans to keep its forces in a "security belt" inside Lebanon for the foreseeable future. American officials neither accepted nor rejected this Israeli concept.

An administration source said the United States is trying out a number of ideas for an international force or some other arrangement to replace the new Israeli military presence in southern Lebanon. It was unclear whether such arrangements could be accepted by the Lebanese government and other states involved.

The halt in offensive military operations by Israel late yesterday appeared to eliminate, at least for now, a serious possibility that the fighting would spread into another general Middle Eastern war.

There was no indication as of last night that Syria would become involved militarily in southern Lebanon, according to U.S. officials.

The Soviet Union, while condemning the invasion in press accounts, does not appear to be challenging the Israeli action in a major way.

Of the other major players in the latest Middle East struggle:

The government of Lebanon summoned ambassadors of the United States, Soviet Union and other major powers for urgent consultations. While emphasizing its demand for territorial integrity, Lebanon did not appear to be closing the door to an international force that might keep order in a demilitarized area near the Israeli border until the still-feeble Lebanese army can take control.

Syria condemend the Israeli invasion as "aggression" and called on the permanent members of the U.N Security Council, including the United States and the Soviet Union, to halt it immediately and work for the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

Israel announced it would avoid Syrian troops. Syrian radio said Damascus would supply air defense units to the Arab force that is keeping the peace in northern Lebanon.

Egypt accused Israel of launching "a systematic annihilation of the Palestinian people." A Foreign Ministry statement said the great powers should take the responsibility for bring the "aggression" to an immediate halt. Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel called the Israeli invasion "a further obstacle" and a potential "turning point" on the road to a comprehensive peace agreement.

Saudi Arabia, in a public message from King Khalid to President Carter, called on the United States to "stop the flagrant aggression." The Saudi message expressed fear of "the escalation of events and the extension of the scope of the trouble" in the region.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, in a state by its U.N observer, called the Israeli move "a full-scale invasion" which could sweep the entire Middle East into war. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat appealed for help from Arab governments, but there was no clear immediate response.

Israel's coordinated assault into southern Lebanon caught the United States - and the negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace - at an awkward time, on the eve of crucial White House meetings between president Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

U.S. officials said emphatically that the meeting scheduled for early next week is expected to go ahead. Never the less, the effect of the invasion on the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations and the wider prospects for a diplomatic settlement was highly uncertain.