Critics claim that Menachem Begin's victory in the recent Israeli elections represents a step backward from peace, but we believe Likud's success carries a new hope for settlement.

It represents the Israeli people's insistence that their government engage in peace negotiations not with Americans but with the Arabs themselves, directly and unconditionally. We welcome the apparent rejection by Jerusalem's new leaders of Kissinger-style triangular bargaining, whereby Washington woos the Arabs with concessions it has wrung from the Israelis. Such bargaining, calling for no irrevocable commitments to peace from the Arabs, has already succeeded in reducing Israel's stack of chips without moving the Middle East significantly toward a settlement.

After the Yom Kippur war, Henry Kissinger aimed at building Arab confidence in America's good offices by delivering to Egypt and Syria pieces of the territories they had lost in an earlier aggression. He compensated Jerusalem with promises of economic and military aid. Never pretending to aim at an overall settlement, Kissinger dubbed his technique "the step-by-step approach." Though this approach may have deferred, it did not preclude, another Arab-Israeli war.

The approach ultimately proved bankrupt because it raised expectations in Arab capitals that the United States would "deliver" Israel if the Arabs remained firm in their refusal to recognize, negotiate with or pledge peace to the Jewish state.

Jimmy Carter rejects further practice of the step-by-step approach. At Clinton, Mass., in March, he declared his commitment to a comprehensive settlement emphasizing the indispensability of accommodation between the Arabs and the Israelis. He forswore undue superpower meddling. The President wisely implied that the status quo is preferable to a settlement that lacks mutual consent. The mere suggestion by U.S. officials that they might ram a settlement down Israel's throat is sure to produce a severe rift, one giving hope to militant Arabs that the breach can be widened, thus increasing for them the apparent utility of war.

In Carter's approach to a comprehensive settlement, Resolution 242 is the principal stepping stone. In essence, the resolution calls for an exchange of land and peace, but the precise amount of land and the exact nature of the peace remain unspecified. The President at Clinton defined peace in terms of open borders, cultural exchange and trade. In contrast to this rather specific definition, his discussion of territory lacked detail. He declared that permanent borders must emerge from direct negotiations between the parties involved. Repudiating Kissinger's triangular framework, the President emphasized bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiations in which the United States would participate only as a "catalyst."

Carter's Clinton remarks elevated American Mideastern diplomacy to a level of high intelligence. Alas, several recent administration pronouncements have cast doubt on the President's commitment to the principles he embraced in March. Certain top policymakers evidently remain dedicated to imposing a Mideast settlement despite the President's pledges at Clinton. The State Department's June 27 declaration on the Mideast strongly suggested the ascendancy of this school of officials.

Where the President at Clinton had been specific in his definition of peace, the June 27 declaration ominously mentioned only "steps toward the normalization of relations." Where the President had refrained from detailed suggestions about borders that are best delineated in direct Arab-Israeli negotiations, the declaration contained a surprisingly explicit demand for Israeli withdrawals from Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan, a demand that verged on acceptance of the Arab interpretation of Resolution 242.

What accounts for this sorry warping of the President's Clinton platform? We believe the explanation lies in the bitter response of many U.S. officials to the political rise of Prime Minister Begin. Reacting reflexively and perhaps a little defensively to the electoral success of Israel's hard-liners, administration thinkers, especially those generally unsympathetic to Israel, felt the need to preempt the anticipated toughening of Israel's bargaining stance. Perhaps they thought that the cold shoulder from Washington would cow Begin into moderation. silliness in government knows no bounds.

Although President Carter attempted at his recent meeting with American Jewish leaders to quell the anxieties generated by the June 27 declaration, suspicions about the President's candor and convition remain. His administration will never garner strong political favor for its Mideast policy so long as people remain confused about which policy they are being asked to support --of the State Department in June.

Fighting between Arabs and Israelis will end only when two conditions are met. First, the Arab states, convinced of the complete superiority of the Israeli military and the solidity of U.S.-Israeli rapport, resign themselves to the uselessness of armed attack against Israel. And second, the Israelis, confident of this resignation feel secure in parting with buffer territories they won in 1967. Only if the Carter administration repudiates the fantasy of "imposed peace" and champions direct and mutual Arab-Israeli negotiations can it advance the cause of a worthwhile settlement in the Middle East.