Senior Israeli officials began a concerted effort today to seize the initiative on the issue they and others see as dominating Middle East diplomacy once the Palestinian guerrillas have left Beirut: the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met during the day with several representatives of the Israeli-supported Arab village leagues in the West Bank, afterward issuing a call to Jordan to join the autonomy talks set out in the Camp David peace accords.
Sharon, who leaves for a trip to the United States, where he will meet Jewish leaders in New York Thursday and address a fund-raiser in Washington Saturday, said Israel was disappointed that Jordan thus far had refused to join the Camp David peace process. But, repeating the Israeli assertion that the defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization forces in Lebanon had transformed all the power equations in the Middle East, Sharon said, "Maybe now, after the basic new circumstances in the Middle East, they [the Jordanians] will change their minds and join. We would be very happy about that."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with three U.S. congressmen from New York, telling them that Israel will not wait for the negotiations on the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops from Lebanon before initiating talks on the future of the West Bank and Gaza with what Israel considers moderate Arab representatives of the territories.
According to one of the congressmen, Democrat James Scheuer, Begin said this summer's Israeli invasion of Lebanon had created a "new order" in that country, holding out the possibility of an overall Middle East peace settlement as prescribed by the Camp David peace accords.
Scheuer said Begin expressed the belief that elimination of the PLO as a force in southern Lebanon will make it far easier for Jordan, moderate Arabs in the occupied territories and even Saudi Arabia to join or at least give support to the long-stalled Camp David autonomy talks. Egypt, which, along with the United States and Israel, was a party to the Camp David agreements, inevitably would be drawn into such a process despite its public declarations that it will not participate in autonomy talks so long as Israeli forces occupy southern Lebanon, Scheuer quoted Begin as saying.
The flurry of activity today appeared to be another sign of nervousness in the Begin government over the likely course of events once the PLO evacuation from Beirut is complete.
At a Cabinet meeting here Sunday, Begin declared that Israel would launch its own initiative for an overall Middle East peace settlement once the last PLO guerrilla had left Beirut. At the same time, Begin said Israel would not consider any proposal that differed from the Camp David formula, which calls for an interim five-year period of undefined "autonomy" for the occupied territories before their final status is determined.
The Israeli government clearly is worried about the suggestions from Washington that following the war in Lebanon there will be new American proposals that could differ in degree if not substance from the limited form of autonomy that Israel has thus far offered to the West Bank and Gaza residents.
Sharon's meeting with the village leagues' leaders was seen as a significant aspect of the Israeli attempt to sieze the initiative and set the diplomatic agenda in the months ahead. More than ever, the village leagues appeared to be the vehicle by which the Begin government hopes to press its case for a settlement along the lines it would consider most satisfactory.
The village leagues, which claim to represent the 70 percent of the West Bank population that lives in rural areas, were formed in 1979 under Israeli sponsorship to create a platform for moderate Palestinians in the West Bank and, ultimately, to serve as an alternate political structure to the elected Palestinian nationalist mayors of the big cities and towns.
Since late last year through a variety of incentives -- and, Palestinian nationalist critics charge, punishments of the opponents of the leagues -- the Israelis appear to have been attempting to build up the leagues as the legitimate representatives of the West Bank residents in future autonomy talks.
Nothing in today's public comments suggested a shift away from Israel's support for a limited form of autonomy that the Palestinian nationalists have rejected.
Sharon said: "We are willing to discuss the autonomy plan with the Palestinian inhabitants of Samaria, Judea the biblical names for the West Bank and Gaza. They have to decide who will discuss this with us. Of course, they will not be PLO members or PLO supporters."
The defense minister called the Camp David accords "the only realistic [peace] plan that exists."
"This plan does not mean a second Palestinian state," he said. "There is a Palestinian state. Jordan is a Palestinian state. We are not offering a second Palestinian state. We are offering a way to enable the Arab inhabitants of Samaria, Judea and Gaza to conduct their own lives."
Scheuer said Begin "is very proud of the level of autonomy" Israel is offering to the West Bank Arabs.
"It really includes everything but defense and security," he said, adding that Begin remains opposed to either a Palestinian state in the region or "self-determination" for the Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
Scheuer met with Begin along with Reps. Mario Biaggi (D) and Raymond J. McGrath (R). The three congressmen said that after their tour of Lebanon they believed there would be no reduction in U.S. aid to Israel because of the war, which they said had transformed the area to the benefit of both Israel and the United States.
Earlier today, Israeli officials pronounced themselves satisfied with the progress of the evacuation of the PLO guerrillas from Beirut, despite several changes in the plan, including the decision to transport some of the fighters by sea today rather than by the Beirut-to-Damascus highway.
Sharon, who met for four hours with U.S. special Middle East envoy Philip C. Habib, declared, "There are no special problems, just day-to-day problems" with the guerrilla evacuation.