AT A MOMENT when the question of approaching the PLO is receiving rising public attention, it is instructive to have the example of Japan. Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki has just become the first leader of a major American ally to receive PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. He has provided a textbook case of how not to deal with the PLO.

It can be argued that Japan is heavily dependent on imports of Mideast oil and had no choice but to invest in producer favor by welcoming Mr. Arafat. The Japanese, however, are not content to go with this line of Realpolitik, or appeasement, or whatever. They wish it to be known that they are helping the peace process. Mr. Suzuki suggested to Mr. Arafat, it was reported, that he proceed toward mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition. But, this newspaper's Tokyo correspondent reported, "Arafat . . . did not respond to Suzuki's suggestion. At a press conference later, Arafat refused to answer reporters' questions on the possibility of PLO recognition of Israel."

In short, Mr. Suzuki gave Mr. Arafat a notable political victory and in return got nothing at all, unless you are prepared to say it was a concession to Japan that Mr. Arafat refrained from repeating the criticisms of the late Anwar Sadat that he made on previous stops of his Asian tour.

One does not blame Mr. Arafat: why should he pay for something the Japanese are eager to give for free? More responsible would-be interlocutors of the PLO, however, have got to go at it a different way. Their purpose in dealing with the PLO should not be simply to get right with a popular Arab cause. It should be to make a contribution to the healing of the Israeli- Palestinian divide. Condition-less contacts that encourage the PLO to believe that terror and intransigence pay are harmful in the extreme.