The Reagan administration's top foreign affairs officials said yesterday that a long-range settlement of the Palestinian problem is essential to peace in the Middle East.
In separate television interviews on the second day of a new era of dispersion for Palestinian fighters, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger spoke in sympathetic terms of the needs and requirements of the Palestinian people and suggested broadly that the United States is preparing to take new diplomatic steps in their behalf.
Both officials, though, steered clear of endorsing an independent Palestinian state on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, which has been a central demand of the Palestine Liberation Organization and many of its adherents among the 4 million Palestinians spread throughout the world.
Furthermore, neither Shultz nor Weinberger explained how Palestinian objectives could be reconciled with the views of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Israeli government.
Appearing in his first broadcast interview since becoming secretary of state, Shultz said on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) that "the establishment of a situation where the Palestinian people can have some sense of dignity and control over their lives is very important and an essential part of any agreement."
Avoiding the term "self-determination" on grounds that it has come to stand for a Palestinian state, Shultz said that "the main point is that the Palestinian people have a voice in determining the conditions under which they're governed."
The secretary of state also said that his reading of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which was the underpinning of post-1967 Middle East peace efforts, including the Camp David agreements, requires Israel to withdraw from some or all of the West Bank and Gaza.
In answer to a followup question, he qualified this statement by calling his view "a matter of interpretation" that leaves much room for negotiation.
A negotiated settlement under which Israel would withdraw from large parts of the West Bank was contemplated by Israel's Labor governments. Begin has adamantly opposed this, contending the area belongs to Israel.
The Camp David accords of 1978 postponed a decision on this issue for a five-year transitional period of "autonomy" or limited self-rule on the West Bank. However, the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations to arrange for such an autonomy period have bogged down.
In an article Sunday in The Washington Post, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set forth seemingly stiff conditions for resumption of the autonomy talks, including U.S. recognition of Palestinian "self-determination" and a halt to all Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank.
Shultz praised Mubarak's article as "a very constructive contribution to discussion on this issue," and said that despite Mubarak's conditions "I believe we'll be able to" restart the autonomy negotiations.
Weinberger, speaking on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), was more explicit than Shultz about the ideas on Middle East peace that the administration is formulating.
"An American plan I believe is in the process of being formulated," he said, adding that he did not know if it would be called a U.S. plan as such. He went on to call the expected proposal "a series of steps that we would certainly hope others would want to support" to lead to a regional settlement.
Asked if there could be peace without a Palestinian state, Weinberger replied, without specifics, that "the Palestinian people certainly have to have some kind of an understanding that they, too, are entitled to some of these normal attributes that other peoples in that part as well as other parts of the world have."
Shultz was asked if he had in mind "a homeland" for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, a term used at times by President Jimmy Carter to the grave concern of the Israeli government.
"Well, certainly that is a place that many of them call home, and a place that they'll live in , and they should have a participation in determining the conditions under which they live," Shultz replied.
The Camp David accords provided for the participation by Palestinians in the autonomy negotiations, and for a Palestinian "self-governing authority" to exercise a degree of power in the five-year period of autonomy.
But the Palestinians rejected the Camp David accords and refused to participate in the negotiations under existing circumstances. The eventual powers of the "self-governing authority" are still at issue in the Egyptian-Israeli talks.
The secretary of state said continued Jewish settlements on the West Bank are "not constructive" and that Israeli refusal to permit a West Bank mayor to travel here to appear on "Meet the Press" was "unfortunate."
At the same time, Shultz went out of his way to say that Israel is not responsible for all the problems of the region, expressing concern that the interchange with his interviewers might have left that impression.
Shultz, who spent most of Saturday meeting with outside and governmental experts on the Soviet Union, said he expected to meet Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko next month at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, as has become usual between the U.S. and Soviet diplomatic chiefs.
"Quite possibly" he and Gromyko will discuss a meeting between President Reagan and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, Shultz said, but he said such a conference should take place only if it promises "some identifiable, constructive results."