Britain and Argentina were close to a peaceful resolution in the South Atlantic--tragically close, since what was agreed vindicated the principle against the use of force, which was Britain's prime reason for sending its fleet in the first place.

Each side submitted proposals to the secretary general of the United Nations last week. The texts overlapped in large measure. Both agreed that there should be a cease-fire. Military forces would withdraw. The U.N. would be responsible for the interim governance of the islands. The dispute would be submitted to negotiation.

This represented concessions by both sides. Gone was Argentina's insistence that its sovereignty be recognized. Britain had also moved. It had originally insisted that the views of the islanders were paramount. And it had said that the island government should be reconstituted as it had been before the Argentine invasion. The proposal it submitted to the secretary general on Monday made clear that it was prepared to accept the United Nations as "administering the government of the islands."

The differences were important enough, but for the most part they did not directly conflict with the principle that Argentina should not benefit from its aggression, or alter the basic withdrawal-U.N. governance-negotiation formula. Most seriously, Argentina proposed that if the parties were unable to agree, the matter would go to the General Assembly for final decision, and in the meantime Argentinians would have free access to the islands. This was a rather transparent attempt to alter the situation on the islands at the very time the negotiations were proceeding and to determine the final result if they failed, and was an end run of the basic principle, which Perez de Cuellar had said Argentina accepted, of long-term negotiations without prejudgment of the outcome. On this, Argentina was reaching too far.

There were other, less serious differences. Argentina wanted the negotiations to include South Georgia and the Sandwiches; Britain was opposed.

Britain, concerned that Argentina might reinvade, suggested the forces pull back only 150 miles; Argentina proposed that the forces return to "base." Certainly this point also could have been compromised--perhaps by providing that Britain's fleet would return as far as Ascension Island--without prejudice to the basic nature of the arrangement.

In some instances, what kept the parties apart were little more than lawyers' points, though points with Olympian consequences. Argentina, for instance, insisted that the agreement include an explicit reference to earlier General Assembly resolutions relating to Argentina's claim to sovereignty--clearly an effort to stake out an advanced position in the coming negotiations, and clearly inconsistent with the notion that the talks would not prejudge the essential issue of sovereignty.

The conflict over the interim government was another evident sticking point, but again not a fundamental one. Britain would admit a U.N. governor, provided that he should "discharge his functions in consultation" with a reconvened islanders' council. Argentina claimed to regard this as the reintroduction of a "colonialist" apparatus and would have none of it; the U.N. administration should instead have islanders as "advisers."

Is is a measure of the present tragedy, and of our contemporary world, that this should be the stuff of which wars are made.

This is particularly so because Britain's noble purpose--the principle that force shall not be used in international relations, that differences must be settled peaceably and that no nation may add to its territory by aggression--was vindicated in the provisions that were common to the two draft agreements.

This war can never be ended on the battlefield. Neither nation will totally defeat the other. The parties must go to the peace table one day. Perhaps there is still hope that the remaining gaps, because they are not related to the great issue of principle at stake in the dispute, can be somehow bridged, and soon. The United States, Latin America and Europe-- though perhaps not the Soviet Union--must hope so.