CAMP DAVID; Peacemaking and Politics. By William B. Quandt. The Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW Washington, D.C., 20036 420 pp. $32.95; paperback, $12.95.

CAMP DAVID has been accorded a deserved place as one of the milestones in the tortured history of the Middle East. It is already taking on something of the mythology of a Finland Station where legendary characters passed through, in this case throwing fate's dice and then departing, the results of their gamble still reverberating through the world.

It was in the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower's grandson that in 1978 the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the United States agreed on the process that led to the first treaty ever concluded between the Jewish state and an Arab nation. A number of books have already been written about that traumatic event, but none more detailed, insightful and cool-toned than William Quandt's. He was an intimate insider, a member from the National Security Council on the U.S. team of Middle East experts, and his account is a Baedeker's guide to the stratagems, personalities and quirks of the arduous process that produced the 1979 treaty. Here, after a somewhat stilted beginning, Quandt adroitly retravels all the byways and deadends and wrong forks that the participants strode, often circling back on themselves, before they finally arrived at a destination they had not exactly sought when they started. It is a journey worth retracing.

Jimmy Carter came to the presidency in 1977 with little knowledge about the Middle East but with a southern Christian's faith that peace could be achieved. During his first year, he became the most outspoken president in his attitudes toward the region since Eisenhower. Whil he supported Israel's security, he openly labeled that country's settlements in the occupied territories of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank as illegal and impediments to peace. He went even further by secretly opening contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization and by publicly declaring that the Palestinians deserved a "homeland," had "legitimate rights" and should "participate in the determination of their own future."

These were revolutionary words for an American president, and they did not endear Carter to Israel's Menachem Begin or to Israel's powerful supporters in the United States. Nonetheless, Quandt notes that Carter in his early days in the White House ignored at his own risk the domestic political grumblings and pressed ahead, his aim at that time a Geneva peace conference toward the end of 1977 that would seek a comprehensive solution to the old Arab-Israeli conflict. But suspicions by President Anwar Sadat that Carter was getting nowhere caused the Egyptain leader to shatter the mold of traditional diplomacy and boldly make his historic trip to Jerusalem in the fall of 1977.

The dramatic gesture caught the Carter administration by surprise, upsetting its Geneva plans. But the president soon rallied to take advantage of the new circumstances. He threw his considerable energies behind the drive to elicit a proportionately generous response from Israeli Prime Minister Begin. Although Begin argued that giving up the Sinai was generous enough, Quandt shows that Carter desperately wanted some commitment that Israel would withdraw from the occupied West Bank. In that he failed, as he was consistently to do when dealing with the determined and wily Israeli leader.

QUANDT IS at his best as he captures the drama and high excitement that led to the convening of Camp David in September 1978 and pervaded the sessions. To the Maryland retreat traveled a historic cast of characters: Carter, by now deeply wounded domestically by his attempts to pressure Israel but still optimistic; Sadat, proud and savoring what he considered private understandings with the U.S. president; and Begin, suspicious, fiery and convinced, as he haughtily had informed Sadat earlier, according to Quandt, that Israel "did not need Egypt's recognition because recognition of Israel's right to exist came only from God."

This was obviously not the best mix of negotiators. Carter by now had concluded that "Begin was not a man of his word," as Quandt quaintly puts it, a perception that appears to have been widely shared by the U.S. delegation. Begin's legalisms, his insistence on lecturing the Americans about Biblical history, his arrogance in flaunting Israel's significant influence on American domestic politics and his refusal to entertain any form of withdrawal from the West Bank, which he insisted on referring to as the Biblical Judea and Samaria, all seemed to grate on the nerves of the Americans.

As for Sadat, he could not stand Begin, an emotion apparently reciprocated by Begin. The Israeli and Egyptain leaders could not bear to be alone together, and so great was their antipathy that they seldom were. On the American side, there was genuine fondness for Sadat, but it was obvious that he was in the weakest position. He desperately needed Egypt's Sinai back with its oil fields and symbolism and he was careless about details and impatient with the process of negotiating.

QUANDT IMPLIES that the result was predictable. Begin stood his ground, Carter found he could apply pressure only on Sadat and the Egyptian ultimately gave in. There were flare ups, threats to walk out of the talks and apparently very little humor. But Carter persevered and after 13 gruelling days in what became the claustrophobic seclusion of Camp David, the three men finally managed to sign what became known as the Camp David Accords. The accords were to be a bueprint for a quick settlement of the Middle East conflict. But nothing is ever easy in the Middle East. In the end, it took six more frustrating months in which Begin consistently forced Carter to retreat, and in his turn Carter forced Sadat to retreat before the treaty was signed.

Even though the Carter team strongly suspected that Begin was purposefully trying to destroy the president's chances for reelection by pursuing his tough negotiating tactics, Carter was stuck by his need to show some achievement for his consuming efforts. Quandt portrays with sympathy a president forced to indulge in the humiliating task of bowing to almost all of the Israeli's demands. He retreated to the point of not only buying most of the Begin's position but by paying him dearly in economic and military aid, adding more than $3 billion as an extra sweetener. Sadat did indeed get back all of the Sinai, but he was left with a narrow bilateral agreement that he had warned all along would cost him support among Arabs.He was right. The treaty essentially deserted the Palestinians, alienated Jordan and Saudi Arabia and resulted in Egypt's isolation in the Arab world. Although Quandt does not mention it, there is good reason to believe that Sadat's assassination less than three years after signing the peace treaty was at least in part due to the major concessions he made to Begin at Carter's urgings during this period.

This is an insider's book and it contains some of the weaknesses of that genre. Quandt is dealing with former colleagues and his own efforts, and so he generally avoids judgments on the talents or actions of many of the Americans involved. In addition, for someone who sat in on the meetings and confronted many of the other people involved, his account is oddly devoid of any colorful description or feel for the telling detail of a scene. He is probably too defensive about the benefits of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, which in fact time is tending to show to be more of a hindrance than a lubricant to a comprehensive solution. The book attempts to demonstrate how domestic politics influenced the process and the people involved and in the end changed everything. In this it is less successful because of a lack of detail about the political forces involved, although the circumstantial evidence is certainly there. Yet on the broad sweeps of forming policy and the nitty gritty of what was really going on behind the scene within the U.S. bureaucracy, Quandt's record is invaluable. His grasp of the nuances of policy making and negotiating is masterly and the picture that emerges is convincing, a haunting record of a flawed process by flawed leaders.