Tonight Israel is to complete the turnover of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. It will thus have relinquished most of the land captured in the 1967 war, together with enormous strategic depth, military bases, and enough oil to have qualified Israel for potential OPEC membership. At a time of continuing international conflict, the Israeli action is remarkable. It makes this an opportune moment to consider the preconditions for a wider Arab-Israeli peace and the implications for U.S. policy in the region.

Amid concern over tensions on the West Bank and in southern Lebanon, the meaning of Israel's Sinai withdrawal deserves special emphasis. First, if other Arabs follow the route of the Egyptians, peace with Israel is possible. Second, the Camp David agreement has been a remarkable accomplishment.

These conclusions contradict an approach that has gained increasing support in recent years, but that leads to a dead end. The approach rests on two inaccurate assumptions. The first is that to re-launch the peace process, it is primarily Israel that should be pressed to make concessions--in particular to modify its stand on the PLO and its opposition to a PLO- dominated state on the West Bank. The problem with this assumption is that the PLO Covenant continues to call for total destruction of the "Zionist entity" by "armed struggle"--a position reaffirmed in Damascus last spring. As long as this remains the PLO position, no accomodation is possible. A PLO state on the West Bank would pose serious danger to Israel, not least because the PLO could not create a stable political system for many years. As a result, the United States should favor a Jordanian-Palestinian solution, encouraging the Palestinians to cooperate with Jordan, with the autonomy negotiations as the means for doing so.

This leads to a second, equally flawed assumption: that the existing negotiations on Palestinian autonomy, under the Camp David framework, should be bypassed in favor of some new arrangement with direct PLO participation. This notion, held by many Europeans and some Americans, disregards the fact that there already is a framework for negotiation. Even if it were to provide only an intermediate stage in an effort at a mutually accepted solution, it remains the only existing basis on which to operate.

U.S. policy now requires a more coherent vision. It should rest on the following guidelines:

1) the United States should re-emphasize the Camp David framework.

2) The United States must maintain a context in which Israel feels secure. Oscillations and reversals in U.S. policy, or hints of going back on previous assurances and agreements (e.g., by negotiating with the PLO while it is committed to Israel's destruction) are wrong. They make Israel feel less secure and they make it harder to get Israeli agreement. In this context, the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia and proosed arms sales to Jordan are ill-advised.

3)The sine qua non for progress in the Mideast is an unequivocal commitment to peace. Israel has demonstrated this convincingly through the Camp David agreements and by giving back the Sinai. Egypt has shown its commitment by dealing directly with Israel and by signing a formal peace treaty. By contrast, the elusive emanations that other Arab states or the Palestinians have "crossed the Rubicon" are inadequate. This is a particular inadequacy of last year's much trumpeted but insubstantial Fahd Plan--which also bypassed Camp David and undercut Egypt.

4) The United States should lean on Jordan and Saudi Arabia to become part of the peace process. Tangible proposals are required, not least to stimulate a real debate within Israel itself. This provides an answer to those who say we must not push these moderate Arab states too far, and who fear that continued absence of a settlement is a threat to stability of these regimes. It is that by failing to make a positive contribution of their own to the peace process, Jordan and Saudi Arabia share fundamental responsibility for the current state of affairs.

By following these four guidelines, the United States will pursue the one course of action holding, however remotely, the possibility of progress. It will also provide a context in which the Americans can effectively say to the Israelis that their settlement activities and recent policies toward the West Bank are becoming counterproductive. These guidelines also offer a contrast to seemingly uncoordinated U.S. policies that have included arms sales to Saudi Arabia and possibly Jordan, indulgence toward Iraq, de-emphasis of Camp David and sporadic irritation with Prime Minister Menachem Begin's actions in the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Lebanon.

April 25 reminds us that two countries have made peace in the Middle East: Israel and Egypt. The prerequisite for further progress requires that the other parties in the region demonstrate their willingness as well.