President Reagan, urging "a new realism" in Middle East peace negotiations, tonight called for a freeze on Israeli settlement on the West Bank of the Jordan River and proposed that the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip be granted self-government in association with Jordan.
In a nationally televised speech, the president said the United States would not support either an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or annexation or permanent control of the territory by Israel. Reagan thus staked out a U.S. position counter to both Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's long-range goal of incorporating the occupied territories into Israel and the Arab view that the Palestinians should have the right to statehood under the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"There is, however, another way to peace," Reagan said. "The final status of these lands must, of course, be reached through the give-and-take of negotiations. But it is the firm view of the United States that self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan offers the best chance for a durable, just and lasting peace."
The president interrupted a vacation on his secluded mountaintop ranch northwest of Santa Barbara to fly to a Los Angeles television studio and deliver a speech advisers believe will put his government in the forefront of a new and serious Middle East peace initiative.
Reagan had not intended to give the speech today, U.S. officials acknowledged, but the sharply negative response of Israeli officials to the settlement freeze proposal, which was contained in a letter Reagan sent Tuesday to Begin, prompted the president to give the speech tonight.
Similar letters were sent to the heads of state of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Begin scheduled an emergency meeting of his Cabinet Thursday to consider the proposal, which calls for a halt to any expansion of the 100 settlements now on the West Bank, which have a Jewish population estimated at 25,000. The West Bank and Gaza are home to 1.3 million Palestinians.
In his speech tonight, as well as in the letter to Begin, Reagan reiterated the call in the Camp David accords for negotiation of a five-year transitional period during which Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza would elect their own representatives to a "self-governing authority" and have limited control over their own affairs, presumably still under Israeli control.
"The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period," Reagan said in his speech tonight.
"Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated."
Reagan's speech and the explanation for it given by senior administration officials made it clear that the U.S. government wants Jordan to participate in the autonomy talks aimed at deciding the future of the West Bank. However, a senior official said that Jordan's King Hussein had made no commitment to participate.
Reagan advisers are aware that the administration's new proposals are likely to be greeted skeptically by the Begin government and its supporters in the United States. Accordingly, Reagan, in his speech, and a senior administration official, at a background briefing in Washington, repeatedly emphasized U.S. concern for the security of Israel, which Reagan has personally supported since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
" . . . the United States will oppose any proposal -- from any party and at any point in the negotiating process -- that threatens the security of Israel," Reagan said. "America's commitment to the security of Israel is ironclad, and, I might add, so is mine."
In Washington, the senior official, asked whether the United States might use its military aid to pressure Israel, said America's "solemn commitment" to Israel's security includes military assistance, "and we have to stick to it." He added: "I don't think the way to do it [win Israel's cooperation] is to play around with weapons sales."
Reagan added a paragraph to his speech reiterating his longstanding personal support for Israel and his understanding of Israel's need to have secure boundaries. It made clear that the United States is not asking Israel to withdraw completely from the territories captured during the 1967 Mideast war but expects that there will be certain border adjustments to strengthen the Jewish state's security.
"I have personally followed and supported Israel's historic struggle for survival, ever since the founding of the state of Israel 34 years ago," Reagan said. "In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel's population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again."
Reagan said that when the border between Jordan and Israel is finally negotiated,"Our view on the extent to which Israel should be asked to give up territory will be heavily affected by the extent of true peace and normalization and the security arrangements offered in return."
While Reagan's proposals, which he called a "fresh start" in the Middle East, were the most far-reaching initiatives of his administration for the region, his speech was short on specifics about how his goals could be achieved.
Instead, administration officials said that they hoped the parties in the region, especially Jordan and Israel, would themselves respond to the president's initiative, seeing it as an opportunity to create a lasting peace in the Middle East. The senior official in Washington said the hope now is that the various parties will study the proposal carefully and then be willing to engage in a dialogue with the United States about the next steps.
The official added that the administration intends to wait for these reactions before making decisions about such possible moves as sending Secretary of State George P. Shultz to the Middle East or appointing a high-level special mediator for the autonomy talks. He said Shultz will visit the region when it seems "propitious and fruitful," and added that naming a special mediator is something "we may or may not do."
The basis for Reagan's new initiative, which he repeatedly stated during the address, was that a successful negotiated withdrawal of entrapped PLO forces from Beirut had created a new and rare opportunity for peace in the Middle East.
"I am happy to announce," the president added,"that the U.S. Marine contingent helping to supervise the evacuation has accomplished its mission. Our young men should be out of Lebanon within two weeks."
Reagan said "the Lebanon war, tragic as it was, has left us with a new opportunity for Middle East peace. We must seize it now and bring peace to this troubled area so vital to world stability while there is still time."
"In the aftermath of the settlement in Lebanon we now face an opportunity for a broader peace," he emphasized. "This time we must not let it slip from our grasp."
While Reagan reaffirmed his view that negotiations in the Middle East should proceed on the basis of the 1978 Camp David accords, he seemed to envision a place for the United States in the negotiating process that went beyond the mediating role advocated and performed by President Carter.
"In making these calls upon others, I recognize that the United States has a special responsibility," Reagan said. "No other nation is in a position to deal with the key parties to the conflict on the basis of trust and reliability."
The "calls" that Reagan referred to were statements issued to all the parties in the Middle East -- the Israelis, the Arab states and the Palestinians -- to abandon their long- time hostilities and suspicions in favor of genuine negotiation.
"I call on Israel to make clear that the security for which she yearns can only be achieved through genuine peace, a peace requiring magnanimity, vision and courage," Reagan said.
"I call on the Palestinian people to recognize that their own political aspirations are inextricably bound to recognition of Israel's right to a secure future.
"And I call on the Arab states to accept the reality of Israel -- and the reality that peace and justice are to be gained only through hard, fair, direct negotiation."
At the same time Reagan was pledging his support for Israeli security, he repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to "permitting the Palestinian people to exercise their legitimate rights."
"The departure of the Palestinians from Beirut dramatizes more than ever the homelessness of the Palestinian people," Reagan said. "Palestinians feel strongly that their cause is more than a question of refugees. I agree. The Camp David agreement recognized that fact when it spoke of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements."
In the midst of his various initiatives, the president tried to sidestep the emotional issue of the control of Jerusalem. Israel occupied Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and Jordan ever since has vainly been demanding its return.
Reagan said merely that "Jerusalem must remain undivided, but its final status should be decided through negotiation." It was a declaration unlikely to satisfy either Israel or Jordan.
Reagan's speech followed by a day a letter he sent to Begin describing the new U.S. proposals, including the freeze on Jewish settlement in occupied Arab territory. Begin immediately called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet after receiving the message, and Israeli officials were described as "surprised and angered" by its tone and content.
U.S. officials said the president's speech, hastily scheduled for tonight after initially being planned for later delivery, was an attempt to seize the initiative in the Middle East in advance both of the Israeli Cabinet meeting Thursday and an Arab summit meeting scheduled to begin in Fez, Morocco, on Monday.
In short, the U.S. proposals are a blueprint for eventually returning the Israeli-occupied territories to Arab control but as part of a larger political entity involving Jordan rather than as an independent Palestinian state. Israel might gain some of the territory as part of adjustments designed to strengthen its security, but the plan essentially calls for the Jewish state to surrender its claims to these areas in exchange for peace and recognition by the Arab world of its right to exist.