Washington — Mideast expert Joseph Sisco told reporters last week that Israel's invasion of Lebanon has presented the US with a ''great opportunity'' to deal with the Palestinian question.
Reagan administration officials respond to that observation with cautious optimism.
''Certainly it gives us a new set of conditions which we have to respond to. Whether that is a new opportunity is still a question,'' one official said. He emphasized, however, that Palestinian autonomy would be ''the central element'' in talks between the President and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel.
Would Reagan put forward substantial alternatives for dealing with the Palestinian problem?
The administration answer: It has to be done, but it's ''a question of priorities'' and of whether this is the moment to come up with such an alternative. An official noted a continuing presidential feeling that ''it was important to ride out the whole process of Camp David first before you went on to new things.''
Mr. Sisco said, too, in his breakfast meeting with reporters that it was time for the President to get deeply involved in the peacemaking process in the Mideast.
To this the administration response was that the President was ''already deeply involved.'' Officials pointed to his high-level talks with Arab and Israeli leaders and to his personal contact with Philip C. Habib, the US special envoy in the Mideast, now in Lebanon.
The substance of the response of administration officials to a number of questions relating to the Mideast follows:
Q: Does the President believe the Begin decision to move into Lebanon will intensify hatred in the Arab world and thus intensify the problem of forging a peace?
A: Many people, both in and out of government, have expressed the concern that this could be a hindrance to obtaining peace there. But the US must go on from there - take conditions as they find them. And the
Q: How about US credibility now with the Arab nations?
A: The US is well aware of how upset the Arab states are over what the Israelis did. But it is the administration's hope, as the result of US discussion with them, that they understand the United States was not either a part of nor did it condone these actions.
Q: What stick is there that the US can use in dealing with the Israelis?
A: The administration's view is that theUFquoteThe President is 'already deeply involved' in the Mideast peacemaking process.
Israelis know they need US help. So it's more a matter of persuading them and trying to bring them around and see the logic of the position the US is taking. It is a matter of persuasion -- rather than to say: How do we hit them over the head?
Q: But do the Israelis pay attention?
A: The administration thinks the Israelis do -- that they have. And that they will.
Q: But don't the Israelis think they will get those arms from the US no matter what they do?
A: It doesn't necessarily work that way. It might not in the future. And it hasn't always in the past. But we must be understanding of the Israelis' problems. The PLO has been knocking off their people, and I think they have the feeling that they just can't allow this to happen.