The Israeli government awaits the next move from Washington, uncertain of how President Reagan will react to the blunt rejection of his first Middle East peace initiative but confident that despite whatever trials lie ahead time and geography strongly favor Jerusalem's ultimate goal of incorporating the West Bank into Israel.
Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Menachem Begin on down, compare the suggestions Reagan made this week to the hated "Rogers plan," a reference to the 1971 proposals of then-Nixon administration secretary of state William P. Rogers for Israel to return for the most part to its pre-1967 borders in return for peace with its Arab neighbors.
In making the comparison, Begin and the others clearly hope they can also arrange a similar fate for the Reagan proposals -- consignment to a footnote in history among all the other failed Middle East peace initiatives.
"Ideas have been presented by the United States in the past and disappeared for the simple reason they could not be implemented because of the objections of one party," an official said after the initial screams of outrage from the Israeli Cabinet had died down.
"At no point did the United States withdraw the Rogers plan. It just never came to the table. We hope these ideas will also pass. Obviously they are unacceptable."
This position was reiterated in a radio interview today by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who said the United States will have no choice but to abandon the Reagan initiative because Israel will not even discuss it.
Israelis, however, cannot be sure how the man the prime minister addresses in letters as "Dear Ron" is going to react to their suggestions that the ideas he put forth this week amount to a "betrayal" of Israel. From the beginning, Reagan has been viewed here as instinctively the most pro-Israeli of recent American chief executives and for a good part of his term he has seemed content to view the Middle East largely through the prism of American-Soviet conflict, leaving the Begin government free to pursue its own aims in the region.
But the war in Lebanon has obviously changed all that and led Reagan not only to announce where the United States stands on some of the key issues in the long-stalled Camp David autonomy talks, but also to put his prestige behind those positions in a televised speech.
Reagan's impressive string of domestic legislative victories has had its impact here, where he is seen as a more formidable political figure than ex-president Carter. So there may be some troubled times ahead in U.S.-Israeli relations. But in the long run, will it make any difference so long as the Begin government -- or like-minded successors -- remain entrenched in power?
The answer, from a politically astute senior official, is, probably not.
"We have more staying power on this issue because it's in our backyard," he said. "Other people lose interest. They start to deal with the Iran hostage crisis, Afghanistan, El Salvador, while we're still here."
The Begin government expressed great surprise and outrage at the president's message. But the overwhelming evidence is that ever since the agreement for the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization forces from Beirut, the Israelis have been anticipating just such a move. They have sought to preempt it by frequent declarations of their eagerness to resume the negotiations over an interim five-year period of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip as set forth in the Camp David accords.
Moreover, Israel should not have been much surprised by the message. While this was the first Reagan administration initiative, the key ideas in it are as old as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
That resolution called on Israel to relinquish occupied territory in return for peace and secure borders.
Yet it is a measure of how much has changed in the intervening years that while the Rogers plan foresaw much if not most of the West Bank eventually being returned to Jordan, the argument over the Reagan proposals centers on whether Israel will allow any part of the occupied territory to be "linked" or federated with Jordan.
Those who know Begin well say that the chances of the current Israeli government considering such a move are nil. Asking Begin to give up parts of the West Bank, one official said, "is roughly equivalent to a Soviet demand that Reagan renounce capitalism."
To Begin, the arid, rock-strewn hills of the West Bank, which he refers to by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria, are an integral part of the historic "land of Israel" that is never again to be surrendered.
It is not so much security concerns as it is deeply felt ideology that forms the core of Begin's view of the West Bank and his determination to maintain the pace of construction of new Jewish settlements in the territory, which now number about 100 with a population of about 30,000.
Early in his term Reagan announced that, contrary to the view of his predecessor, he did not consider the settlements to be illegal -- a statement the Israeli Cabinet seized on this week, noting that "a double negative makes a positive," meaning the settlements are legal. But the shock of the war in Lebanon prompted Reagan in his speech this week to call for "the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel."
In addition, Israeli radio reported today that the president has informed Begin that even if the territory is relinquished by Israel, the United States will not support continued Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish settlements already in place there.
Knowing that Egypt -- the third Camp David participant -- has vowed not to resume the autonomy talks until Israel withdraws from Lebanon, and that, in Reagan's words, "further settlement activity only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated," Israel insists that there is nothing to talk about until the autonomy talks resume.
Once the parties, including Jordan if it so decides, are at the negotiating table, Israeli officials said this week, "all issues are open to negotiation," including the Reagan proposals that Israel has already rejected out of hand.
Under the circumstances, just getting the autonomy talks going again is likely to be a very time-consuming business. But in Begin's view, time is on Israel's side. For the moment at least, the autonomy negotiations as defined by the Begin government are the only option Jerusalem is offering.
"It is the only process we have," an official said. "Give it a chance. I know of negotiations that have lasted for 20 or 30 years."
And how many settlements could Israel establish in the West Bank in another 20 or 30 years, he was asked. The official just smiled.
Associated Press reported the following:
An Arab youth was killed when Israeli troopers opened fire to disperse a group of stone-throwing demonstrators in the West Bank town of Nablus, Israeli radio reported. It said an Israeli soldier was injured in the clash but gave no further details.