THERE IS A PROPOSAL on the table for the Israeli-occupied West Bank that may contain the seeds for a real compromise. Believe it or not, its source is Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Everyone who participated in Camp David noticed how careful Begin is with words. They learned that is is important to pay attention to what the prime minister and his spokesmen actually are saying. But people seem to be ignoring the clear signals coming from Jerusalem. Perhaps that is because Begin has adopted a classic bargaining posture. He is making a lot more noise publicly about what he will not accept than about what he will. But he has been clear enough about his proposal to indicate its outline, if people will only listen. Its core is not all that far removed from the United States' ideas about federalism on the West Bank.
Many Americans believe Begin would like Israel to retain permanent control over, and perhaps annex, the West Bank. That belief is based on an understandable misreading of Begin's rhetoric. When you add up the propositions to which the Israeli government has said it would never agree, it is hard to see where there is room left for compromise. But there is room, and Begin has been trying to let people see where he thinks it lies.
It would be worth reiterating what the Israeli government says it will not accept. First, it says it will not agree either to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank or to "give back" the land to Jordan. In a Sept. 8 Knesset speech explaining his government's rejection of President Reagan's Sept. 1 peace initiative, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said that one reason for the rejection was that the plan called for "Arab soverignty over the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza" and an eventual "severing" of their "ties with Israel."
Shamir's speech echoed points made repeatedly by Begin during his 1981 reelection campaign. For example, in May 1981, Begin said, "We want to live with the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael (the historic land of Israel) as neighbors with mutual respect, but we will not surrender part of it to foreign soverignty." Begin has never wavered from this position.
Neither has his government budged from its views about Jewish settlements. Shamir, in his Sept. 8 speech, said, "The right of Jews to settle in the land of Israel is fundamental and beyond question; it does not require anyone's approval. Even to raise the issue is an insult."
No one could be faulted for thinking these statements leave no room for negotiations, if they were the only ones the Israeli government had made. But the right to settle does not require soverignty. The National Religious Party's Zevulun Hammer, a coalition partner, explicity said as much in an early October speech. Nor does a refusal to give something back automatically imply a desire to keep it.
But what is there besides keeping and giving back? Daniel J. Elazar, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a professor at Bar- Ilan University, recently laid bare the outline of Begin's thinking on this.
Elazar pointed to an article published last spring in the Israeli periodical Gesher by Arye Naor, a former cabinet secretary who everyone in Israel believes still speaks for the prime minister. Naor argued that as unacceptable as repartition or a full withdrawal would be to Israelis for security reasons, so too for different reasons would be Israeli annexation. As an alternative, Naor advocated shared rule -- a kind of federal arrangement, or condominium, in which Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians would govern the occupied territories jointly.
When Naor's clear signal was missed, Begin reiterated the point himself. The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported that Begin had told a July 17 rally in Tel Aviv that after peace in Lebanon, "he would propose to King Hussein of Jordan to meet with him in Jerusalem or in Amman in order to build a free confederation between Western Israel and Eastern Transjordan." Begin also said he would propose "open bridges on the Jordan and free access for the Jordanians to the ports of Haifa and Ashdod."
When the point was missed once again, Ehud Olmert repeated part of it in a Sept. 10 New York times op-ed article. Olmert, a young Likud member of the Knesset who helped manage Begin's 1981 campaign, said the Reagan's peace initiative "holds out the promise of a workable compromise," but not if the compromise has to be territorial. Instead, Olmert proposed "a different kind of compromise based not on a partition of land but on a division of administrative functions between Israel and Jordan." Elazar, for his part, believes that dividing functions would not satisfy Jordanians or Palestinians, but that a sharing of functions might well answer the deeply felt needs of all of the parties of the region.
These proposals are not neat. They probably stand little chance of being accepted by Jordanians or Palestinians. If accepted, they might or might not be workable.
But they are not the proposals of an intransigent man, as Begin is often portrayed. Creative diplomats could surely find a lot of room in them for discussion. They deserve to be considered.