In his new autobiography, former president Ronald Reagan says Israel was the instigator and prime mover in the Iran-contra affair.

He blames the Israelis for misleading him into believing he was selling arms to so-called Iranian moderates when some "may have had links to the Ayatollah Khomeini's government and were trying to obtain weapons under false pretenses."

Israel began the arms deals with Iran when it contacted Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, to propose the first sale, and continued to press the secret dealings thereafter, Reagan writes in "An American Life," published today. "Prime Minister Shimon Peres was behind the proposal," the former president says.

Iranian middlemen endorsed by Israel helped "win the freedom of three hostages," Reagan adds, but the same middlemen "behaved at times like bait-and-switch con men . . . with the sole intention of profiteering."

Reagan's 72-page review of the most serious political scandal of his administration contains several new accounts of aspects of the Iran-contra affair, some of which conflict with his earlier statements and sworn testimony of members of his administration. But Reagan also omits numerous details from this retelling of key events, including some in which he personally played a leading role. The new account leaves many unanswered questions.

In his memoir Reagan distances himself from former White House aide Oliver L. North, often describing North's adventures as actions by the "NSC staff," without any reference to the name of their author. He writes that the "compassion" he felt for North came at a time when "I did not know . . . that North and others at the NSC had spent hours shredding documents."

"Supporters" pressured him to give pardons to North and former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, but "I never gave it serious consideration," Reagan writes. Given a chance to replay the affair, he says, he would have asked North and Poindexter into the Oval Office to "level with me." But at the time -- just after Attorney General Edwin Meese III had discovered a memo showing that North had diverted proceeds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras -- Meese and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan pressed Reagan to remove both men from the White House without delay, Reagan writes. He never had a chance to ask them what had really happened, he says.

Reagan discloses that in January 1987, as public concern over Iran-contra was growing in the United States and a major congressional investigation was underway, Reagan considered sending the Delta Force of Army commandos into Lebanon on a hostage rescue mission, after three more Americans were seized in Beirut. But the operation was abandoned after the British objected, citing a mission to Beirut by Anglican missionary Terry Waite. (Waite was later taken hostage.)

Reagan's repeated references to Israel's key role in the Iran-contra affair echo an explanation that his White House gave shortly after the affair became public. That explanation was dropped as more details became public.

Reagan writes that it was the Israelis who first contacted McFarlane and that the first arms sale "was to be solely between Israel and the Iranian moderates."

"The truth is," Reagan wrote about his decision to authorize the first shipment, "once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn't have to think thirty seconds about saying yes to their proposal" to send arms as a way to open discussions and free American hostages held in Lebanon.

Reagan writes that he was told Israel played a key part in the diversion to the contras of profits from the arms sales to Iran. There is no hint of such a role in the many records of the transactions that have been released.

Reagan says he gave his original approval to the idea of sending arms to Iran in August 1985, before the initial shipment of U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles was made by Israel to Iran. This is what he said in his first appearance before his own Tower review board in 1987. But at a second appearance before the board -- appointed by Reagan to investigate White House handling of the Iran-contra affair -- Reagan changed his account, saying he had no recollection whether or not he gave advance approval for the arms sale.

Regan, his chief of staff, testified to Congress that the president had not approved the shipment prior to its taking place and "appeared upset" when was told the 1985 TOW shipment had taken place, according to the congressional Iran-contra committee report. In his autobiography Reagan does not mention his Tower board appearances or Regan's testimony.

Nor does he mention the November 1985 shipment by Israel to Iran of U.S.-made Hawk antiaircraft missiles that was intended to gain the release of U.S. hostages, although he was informed of the plan as it occurred. He has acknowledged previously that he was aware of the Hawk shipments.

Reagan says he approved "an additional shipment of TOW missiles to Iran on Jan. 7, 1986, "but with a new emphasis on negotiating directly with moderate members of the Iranian govenment rather than with the go-betweens." He adds that "through February we expected the hostages to be released almost on a daily basis, but they did not come." Reagan does not note that during that period the United States sent 1,000 TOW missiles to Iran.

"Israeli go-betweens" set up McFarlane's trip to Tehran in May 1986 with promises that American hostages in Lebanon would be freed after face-to-face meetings with the so-called Iranian moderates, Reagan writes. When the secret trip failed, "It was a heartbreaking disappointment for all of us," Reagan recorded in his diary at the time.