Last week, flying back from Cairo, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reiterated the call that Anwar Sadat made on his last visit to Washington for the United States to talk directly to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ford said, "At some point that has to happen. I would not want to pick the date today, but in a realistic way that dialogue has to take place." Carter added, "I do not see any possibility in the future, certainly within my lifetime, of the Palestinian world and of the Arab world acknowledging any other leadership for the Palestinians other than the PLO."

The administration was quick to reply, in statements made by President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, that the United States will talk to the PLO only after it has recognized Israel's right to exist.

Yasser Arafat's position on the question of recognition hasn't changed since he made his first comprehensive statement to Rep. Paul Findley in 1978. At that time, he said the PLO was ready to live in peace with Israel if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories and the Palestinians were allowed to determine their own future. This same position was reiterated several times, the last only a few days ago in Japan, when he declared that it is Israel, not the PLO, that refuses to recognize the other.

The question--why doesn't Arafat be as clear and explicit as the United States wants him to be?--is easy to answer.

He is reluctant, I think, for two reasons. One has to do with his own Palestinian (and Arab) constituency and the other with American (and Israeli) good faith.

For most Palestinians (and Arabs), clear, unconditional recognition of Israel means unconditional surrender of their rights (and to them these rights are not abstract: they have to do with homes and villages and lands and a way of life not forgotten after 33 years of exile).

For Arafat to shelve these rights in return for "talking" with the United States (which is probably not willing to do more than that) is simply impossible. Unless he has reason to believe that he can get substantial rewards-- Israeli withdrawal, Palestinian self-determination--he is not likely to play his "trump card" in advance. Given the realities in the area, it would be too dangerous for him to do otherwise; his way of stating his position is not likely to change, whatever the pressure.

Carter is perhaps the only important figure to appreciate Arafat's position and to suggest a realistic approach to dealing with it. He suggests that the United States take the first step and recognize the PLO without asking it to recognize Israel first. His words, in the joint interview, are very significant and should be read with great care. "The problem," he said, "is the recognition of the PLO as a political entity by the United States before the Palestinians are willing to acknowledge that Israel is a nation that has a right to exist" (emphasis added).

Finding the mechanism is certainly possible provided the administration accepts what Carter and Ford and some quite knowledgeable people have said: that the Palestinian issue must have top priority, that negotiation directly with the Palestinians is the only way to settlement, and that the PLO is the only spokesman for the Palestinian people.

It would probably be difficult for the administration, once it succeeds in applying clear thinking to the issue, not to redefine some of its present orientations, including its attitude toward the PLO and its chairman.

Then Arafat might appear to be what he in fact is: the only viable interlocutor the United States has on the Palestinian issue, and hence on the entire Middle East crisis. To weaken him in this role would not be in anybody's interest and would only reduce the chances of peace in the area.

The step that Carter suggests is to make it easier for Arafat to enter into negotiation, not more difficult. It would help immeasurably if President Reagan were to "do a Sadat" and invite Arafat to Washington.