Suddenly the press is alive with words like "new movement," "initiative," "breakthrough" in the Middle East peace process. But is anything new really going on?

In recent meetings with top leaders in the area, I found they have come to recognize that peace negotiations are necessary to solve the festering Palestinian problem. South Lebanon, in particular, is teaching both Israel and the Arabs the danger of arousing fundamentalism and a lust for martyrdom.

King Hussein always understood that unfulfilled national aspirations by the Palestinians would eventually turn them that way. But he also understands that agreement and compromise over Palestinian rights and soil can be made only by Palestinians, i.e., the PLO. Now this has come a little closer.

The Hussein-Arafat declaration of Feb. 11 stresses a "peaceful and just settlement," not "armed struggle." It puts aside the concept of a separate Palestinian state, anathema to Israel. The language is fuzzy, but what it means is the acceptance of self-determination -- shorthand for a separate state -- as a principle, with the creation of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as a fact. It comes closer to accepting U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which recognizes Israel's existence and need for security.

There are still negatives. The declaration wants all negotiations to take place within a general conference in which all concerned states, including Israel (and the PLO) would meet under joint U.S.-Soviet chairmanship.

That is simply unacceptable to both the United States and Israel for several reasons. The most important is that only concessions hammered out in direct, hard- fought negotiations are likely to stick and will clearly represent a recognition and acceptance of Israel. Without that, the United States cannot urge Israel to accept what may be a real opportunity for peace.

Another obstacle is that large portions of Israeli public opinion view the PLO only as terrorists. The Likud part of Israel's coalition government harps on the PLO issue, particularly because it does not want to negotiate any territorial revision, no "peace for territory" as the 1982 Reagan plan envisages.

The Labor Party is more flexible, but it recognizes the strong Israeli anti-PLO sentiment. Hence it is willing to accommodate Hussein's need for Palestinians only if they are not of the PLO. But representative Palestinians who are not identified with the PLO do not exist.

Both the United States and Israel's Labor Party have stated that they would deal with the PLO if it recognized Israel and foreswore terrorism. Such a concession would split the PLO even more deeply. Arafat has never faced up to the fact that he has to choose betweunity and action -- he cannot have both.

Much has changed since 1967. A total rollback to the 1967 borders has become a practical impossibility. Hence the PLO faces the highly unattractive choice of making dangerous, literally life-threatening concessions for a shrunken heritage. Its choice is not between more and less but between less and nothing.

Are we back to square one? No. The Arabs have moved closer to negotiations, even if the terms are not right. The PLO has defied radical and Syrian threats, met in Amman and accepted, however tenuously, an agreement with Hussein. Egypt backs that solidly and is prepared to go further by proposing a "mini-Camp David" in Cairo -- though there are as yet no takers.

Israel too has changed. Lebanon is a disaster from which it has to disengage as fast as possible, and at least its Labor component feels a sense of urgency about negotiations.

The moment is not yet. Israel's government is totally split on this issue, but it must hold together until its economic house is in order. The present coalition government is unlikely to survive, and the next Israeli elections are quite likely to be fought on this core issue: peace for land, or no peace.

What has changed lies less in the various moves that fill the media than in the atmosphere: there is a somewhat better perception of political realities on all sides. That is the crux: negotiations cannot begin until the political atmosphere makes them possible.