A SOUR ROLLING crisis has overtaken relations between the United States and Israel. It arises chiefly from the confusions of American diplomacy and, unless checked, it will almost surely destroy the mutual confidence that is the only feasible basis for further progress toward peace in the Middle East.

Here is the background of the crisis. At different times and for practical reasons then considered good and necessary, the United States promised Israel 1) not to tamper with the delicate political equation embodied in the United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, 2) not to recognize or negotiate with the PLO until it had recognized Israel's right to exist and accepted 242 and 338 and 3) to pursue Palestinian autonomy according to the Camp David accords.

The United States now finds these various obligations restrictive and inconvenient; it wishes to alter 242, deal with the PLO, and loosen up Camp David. It wants to do these things for reasons now considered good and necessary: to keep Egypt aboard the peace train and to bring the Palestinians aboard, to accommodate American interests, including oil in other Arab countries, and to further an overall strategy of limiting radical and Soviet influence in the region. These are all weighty considerations. But they are leading the administration toward a policy that cuts across its earlier pledges to the Israelis.

Look more closely, for instance, at the Palestinian question. At Camp David, Israel had three lawyers, the United States had one (and he was out of the room for crucial hours) and Egypt had none. This is reflected in the outcome. On key issues, Camp David policy offers Palestinian autonomy "to the inhabitants" -- not to the land. It defines the self-governing authority as an "administrative council" -- without legislative or judicial powers. It offers the Palestinians not self determination but simply the chance to "participate in the determination of their own future." It makes no mention of Jerusalem. And so on. In brief, it is a Begin document to the letter. That is why Anwar Sadat now appeals to the "spirit" of Camp David. That is why Jimmy Carter and his diplomats, realizing that Camp David restricts their current options -- precisely as Israel had planned -- are squirming and trimming now.

Some Israelis, it is true, can give the impression of being hysterical about American abandonment. And the Israeli government is being extremely legalistic about those American pledges. But the deeper point is that American credibility is at issue, and Israel's willingness to keep taking the risk of peace rests on American credibility. Israel is, after all, preparing a substantial strategic withdrawal from the Sinai. At a moment of near panic on oil in the United States, it is relinquishing the only source of oil under its control. It is being asked to accept a PLO that murders its children and that is formally sworn to its destruction. The Israeli claim on American constancy is very strong.

In fact, the whole structure of American diplomacy in the Middle East rests on Israeli confidence in the United States. The current American approach is virtually certain to complete the collapse of the already struggling Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy. The Israelis will then think long and hard before undertaking the final stage of evacuation of the Sinai. All this will unfold, by the way, just as the American presidential campaign nears a boil next spring.

What is the answer? The Carter administration is fundamentally correct in seeking an accommodation with Palestinian nationalism. This is morally right and politically necessary, and in no other way can a lasting peace be secured. It can only be achieved, moreover, by involving the PLO, which is a terrorist gang but which is also the only body with a serious claim to represent the Palestinian people. But the United States cannot proceed by cheating on Israel.

The reported American intention to prepare a new Security Council resolution, this one directly involving the Palestinians, seems to us no more than word play. The most promising avenue leads straight to the PLO. Aside from PLO talks with Israel, which regretably are not yet in the cards, nothing would be more useful than PLO talks with the United States.

The United States should openly declare itself eager for the direct relationship that the PLO says it seeks -- on condition that the PLO recognize Israel's right to exist and accept Resolutions 242 and 338. Such steps by the PLO would take great political courage and would utterly transform the Mideast landscape and would remove any good reason for Israel to deny reciprocal recognition.The trouble with the recent American feelers to the PLO is not simply that they are devious. They encourage the PLO to ask for a free pass, they reward reluctance to compromise, they announce that the United States is prepared to be blackmailed. Israel deserves better. More important for Americans, the United States deserves better, too.