HOW ODD that the State Department's critique of Israel for its attacks in Lebanon should be less cogent than that of the National Association of Arab Americans, an openly Pro-PLO group. The department, with the sort of "evenhandedness" that tired bureaucrats substitute for analysis, condemns both the Palestinian terrorist raids on Israel and the Israeli military actions in Lebanon. By contrast, the NAAA, with a refreshing how to Israel's right of self-defense, concedes that "there is no denying that Palestinian commandos occasionally strike at targets inside Israel or the occupied territories," and centers its protests on the disproportionality of Israel's response.

The NAAA, its cynicism notwithstanding, has it essentially right. The source of the crisis is the PLO's policy of trans-border terror -- a policy launched not so much to kill Israelis as to lure Israel into precisely the swamp of national division and international disrepute in which it has been entrapped on this issue. The PLO understands very well what moves Israelis, and it knew that to achieve its purposes it had to kill civilians: it is the spectacle of its civilians dying that causes Israel to cast off restraint and to lash out irrationally, as it has in southern Lebanon. So it was that the PLO provoked Israel into military policies that are taking the lives of many noncombatants and laying waste to a broad band of Lebanese territory. These policies are feeding the growing sense in Israel that Prime Minister Menachem Begin is losing his grip on national policy. They produced a diplomatic windfall for the PLO the other day when the United States, at the United Nations, skipped lightly over the PLO's violence and came down hard on Israel's.

Was the State Department aware that it was playing the part assigned to it by the PLO? Whatever, it is absurd and regrettable that the State Department cannot bring itself to focus on the fundamental requirement in southern Lebanon: the PLO should halt its operations into Israel. That would remove the grounds for Israeli retaliation. Failing that, the State Department should be insisting that the PLO honor its pledge to move its guerrillas out of civilian centers. That would at least reduce the civilian toll. By fuzzing over the PLO's initial and continuing responsibility and by seeming to question Israel's right of self-defense, the United States may actually be fanning the flames.

As for Israel, the savage and indiscriminate quality of its Lebanese operations and its careless support of wanton Christian militiamen are costing it heavily in the international arena and are dismaying and disgusting many Israelis. Israel would be in a far better position to seek support for its legitimate claims of self-defense, at home as abroad, if it were responding in a manner as efficient and restrained as the circumstances warrant.