The Reagan administration, seeking to calm Israeli concern about a Saudi Arabian plan for Mideast peace, asserted yesterday that the United States remains committed to the Camp David accords as the vehicle for pursuing peace in the region and does not endorse the Saudi proposals as a substitute.
"I hope we can put this one to rest," a senior administration official said about Israeli complaints over President Reagan's praise for the eight-point plan offered by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd in August. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced the Saudi proposals as an example of "how to liquidate Israel in stages."
Further grounds for Israeli concern about the U.S. position on the Saudi plan were provided in a lengthy statement made by Fahd in Riyadh yesterday. He said his plan was intended to replace the Camp David process, and he called on Reagan "to start the bigger and more important battle" of achieving Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, establishing a Palestinian state, returning the Palestinians to their homeland in what is now Israel and removing Israeli settlements from the occupied territories.
In addition, Jordan's King Hussein, who began an official visit here yesterday, was asked about the Saudi plan following a working lunch with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. Hussein replied that it did not differ from many of the positions advocated by Jordan, and he added: "It is a Saudi contribution for thought. It is worthy of consideration."
The senior U.S. official, speaking at a White House background briefing on the Hussein visit, said: "We think the Israelis will come to realize shortly that we suppport the Camp David process . . . . The president did not deviate nor intend to deviate from U.S. adherence to the Camp David accords as the peace process for the Middle East."
At issue was a comment Reagan made last week after he successfully overcame attempts by congressional opponents to veto his $8.5 billion aircraft sale to the Saudis. He contended that the Saudis "are willing to discuss peace in the Middle East," and he added that, while the United States and Israel do not agree with all of Fahd's proposals, "it was the first time" the Saudis "had recognized Israel as a nation and it is a beginning point for negotiations."
The president's words, coupled with similar remarks from other top administration officials, were interpreted in Israel as a sign of a further U.S. tilt toward Israel's foes in the Arab-Israeli conflict and drew a strong protest from the Begin government.
The Israelis warned that a failure to distance the United States from the Saudi plan could halt Begin's negotiations with Egypt on self-rule for the Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli-occupied territories.
In seeking to explain the intent of Reagan's remarks, the senior official, who cannot be identified under the briefing rules, said: "Note was taken of the Saudi eight-point plan, but no additional judgments were made about it . . . . The president indicated there was an initiative where none existed before."
The official then focused on one point in the Fahd plan, which talks about the right of the states in the region to exist. The administration, interpreting this section as an oblique reference to Israel, has cited it as a "constructive" element in the proposals.
Referring to that point, the official contended: "There is a way to read it as 'all states have a right to exist,' and you can interpret that to mean Israel as well."
Other administration officials later said privately that they regarded the furor as resulting from the anxiety stirred in Israel by the go-ahead given by Congress to the Airborne Warning and Control System sale and the support Fahd's proposals have drawn from Western Europe. In retrospect, they conceded, both the timing of Reagan's remark and the perhaps overly enthusiastic language that he used were unfortunate.
However, the officials insisted, there is no orchestrated effort under way to move toward a U.S. embrace of the Saudi proposals or to force them on Israel. The administration's view of the Fahd plan, they added, is that it was not put forward on a take-it-leave-it basis but was intended as an advancement of ideas that could signal an eventual Saudi willingness to get involved in the Mideast peace process.
A key element of administration strategy in the region is to cultivate closer ties with moderate Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan in hopes they can be wooed in gradual stages to cooperate with the Camp David process.
That aim was implicit in the lavishly ceremonial welcome and warm words of praise accorded by Reagan to Hussein at his White House arrival yesterday. However, U.S. officials, while saying there are many important issues to discuss with the king, stressed that yesterday's meeting was largely devoted to Reagan and Hussein, who had not met before, getting to know each other rather than detailed discussion of Mideast problems.