WASHINGTON (AP) _ On the eve of taking office as president, George Bush said he is not inclined to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev for the mere purpose of keeping high-level U.S.-Soviet contacts going.

In a wide-ranging interview in his vice presidential office across from the White House, Bush refused to predict whether he and Gorbachev would even see each other during the first year of a Bush presidency. He parted company with President Reagan on one issue - the Panama Canal treaty - and offered veiled criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Bush seemed upbeat and at ease during the interview with news service reporters. When someone suggested he might be too excited to rest on the night before becoming president, Bush said he would be able to sleep. ''I don't feel the tension that I thought,'' he said.

Bush spent most of the day out of the public eye. He did venture out for a meeting with top high school youths from around the country and pledged there to do ''all in my power to help you help yourselves prepare for a brighter future.''

Bush offered some of his characteristic optimism - a quality shared with Ronald Reagan - to the students. ''I really feel this,'' he told them. ''Our best days are yet to come.''

The vice president rehearsed the inaugural address that he will deliver at noon Friday, when Reagan relinquishes office and Bush assumes it in a ceremony outside the Capitol.

In his interview, Bush said a puported tape-recorded threat by Palestine Liberation Organization chief Arafat against moderate Arabs was ''a setback to peace rather than an enhancement of peace.'' He said the threat ''does not facilitate improved relations with Arafat,'' who won American support after he made a public commitment to renounce terrorism.

On another subject, Bush seemed to differ with Reagan's statement Wednesday that the United States should reconsider the treaties to turn over the operation of the Panama Canal to Panama, if strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega remains in power.

''The treaty has certain obligations that ought to be met,'' Bush said. ''I'm a great believer that once a treaty is entered into and ratified, it ought to be kept. But I'd have to look at the treaty before I have any comment on that.''

Previewing his inaugural address, Bush said, ''It will be just a broad appeal to the American people to pitch in and help. It'll be an expression of satisfaction about how far we've come as a nation, and a recognition that we've got a long way to go.

''It will be a re-emphasis of my conviction that many of these problems that remain unsolved can best be solved by engagement of the 'thousand points of light' concept'' of people helping people.

On other points, Bush said:

-He plans a meeting Tuesday with the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress.

-The idea of a dramatic 100-day beginning of his administration is ''a concept that doesn't really apply'' in his case because he's taking over from a president with whom he's served.

-He would like to be further along in picking candidates for high-level positions below the rank of Cabinet secretary but added ''we're doing all right on it.''

-Reducing the budget deficit is his top priority. ''This is the No. 1 domestic economic problem facing the country.'' He said the administration will negotiate with Congress on the problem, adding ''I'm not quite naive enough to believe they'll accept absolutely everything I propose.''

-He wants early action on tightening ethics laws. Moreover, he said, ''I'd like to see some action on not only formulating the policy but taking certain steps towards more accomplishment and understanding in the environmental field.'' He said anti-drug efforts would gear up.

-Money will not be available ''to do all the things I want to do and that I feel are priority'' in the field of education. ... Some of what I want to do obviously is going to have to wait on the solution to the budget question.''

-He will not follow Reagan's practice of making a weekly Saturday address on the radio.

Bush said one of his first acts as president would be to order a major review of U.S. relations with the Soviets, a step that will delay any chance of quick movement in strategic arms reduction talks set to resume Feb. 15.

''I don't think we risk losing momentum that President Reagan achieved because I think the Soviets understand that my intention is not to drag my feet but to simply do a prudent reassessment,'' Bush said.

Bush said he did not know how long the review would take, even to the point of whether it would take up to six months or a year. He said the United States also will have to review its posture regarding conventional arms talks involving NATO and Warsaw Pact nations.

Asked to rate the odds of a summit with Gorbachev this year, Bush said, ''I don't think we can make the odds, and more important than that is (that) we have good sound positions that we will be advocating. And whether that results in a summit or not, I think, is less important than the fact that the process will go forward.''

Asked if he shared Reagan's view that there was some value in a summit just to meet and talk, Bush said, ''Not necessarily - but I won't say that that would never happen.

''What I don't want to do, though, and won't do, is schedule a meeting just to have it said that we're having a meeting, because I don't think that does anything but needlessly raise expectations with little chance of fulfillment of some objective.''

Saying he did not want to be hemmed in by life at the White House, Bush promised to change the pattern set by Reagan of sticking to a carefully orchestrated schedule, never leaving the White House without advance warning to the press.

''I can't pledge to be anchored down,'' Bush said. ''You just don't want to get totally isolated.''