The United States yesterday criticized Israel's deportation of teachers from Arab universities in the occupied West Bank as an action that could force some of the institutions to close and that threatens U.S. efforts "to restore momentum" to the Middle East peace process.

"Actions such as these can only further undermine the confidence of Palestinians and others whom we hope to attract to future negotiations," said State Department spokesman Alan Romberg in a reference to U.S. concern about the effects on President Reagan's Mideast peace initiative.

His statement was in response to an Israeli drive against Palestinian nationalist sentiment at three West Bank universities.

Under the crackdown, the Israeli-military government has been expelling non-resident teachers who refuse to sign a pledge that they will not provide assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization or "any other hostile organization."

The universities involved are Najah in Nablus, Bethlehem and Bir Zeit near Ramallah.

Romberg said that, according to U.S. information, as many as 18 professors have been expelled from Najah, and he added that "at least 11 American citizens -- one from Najah and 10 from Bir Zeit -- have been ordered to stop teaching and have been informed they will be required to leave when their visitor permits lapse."

"We are concerned that large-scale bannings and expulsions of vital non-resident educators could eventually force some or all West Bank universities to close," Romberg said. "Since the U.S., both privately and officially, has over the years made meaningful financial and intellectual contributions to the development of such institutions, we naturally take an interest if their continued operation is in question."

Then, referring to the impact of the crackdown on the confidence of the Palestinians in negotiations, he added: "There is also the broader issue of the effect of the pledge requirement on our effort to restore momentum to the peace process."

The U.S. statement follows criticism of Israeli plans to establish new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and has been described by U.S. officials as part of an attempt to induce Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to show more restraint in dealing with the West Bank.

Reagan had been expected to raise the issue with Begin at a White House meeting this Friday, but the meeting was canceled after the death of Begin's wife last Saturday caused him to return home.