IT IS NOT clear what the United States is edging toward in the Middle East. The quest for Palestinians who would talk with Israel has produced Palestinians who would talk with the United States. Officials in the State Department would take the chance that an American meeting with some of them would give the PLO its long-sought American connection and, with it, a readiness finally to accept the Israelis. But even the so-called "moderate" Yasser Arafat wing of the PLO has cast a shadow on that possibility, by tending to retreat from its already loose embrace of peace last February in the document worked out with Jordan and by taking a higher profile in terror against Israel. The Israelis, with a split government and many distractions, are digging in.

So what should the United States do? First, it should expect King Hussein, who has been showing no little bravery, to show a little more -- to go back to Yasser Arafat for some new names. Fairly, skeptics point out that the only Palestinians acceptable to Israel may turn out to be so tame as to represent nobody: peace must be made with enemies, not friends. But Israel did accept two names on the Hussein list. And the party whose leader is currently prime minister, Labor's Shimon Peres, is open, to a degree so far untested, to finding Palestinian as well as Jordanian interlocutors. Further bargaining is indicated.

To induce Israel to explore peace, the United States is going to have to connect the separate pieces of its policy. In particular, to push a wary and divided Israel toward talks while major new arms packages are being offered Jordan and Saudi Arabia is a no go. It will freeze Israeli diplomacy and mobilize the Israel lobby in Washington. Sen. Richard Lugar warns an oddly inattentive administration "not to expend political capital" by sending up arms requests Congress will unquestionably rebuff. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are friendly states, and there is a continuing American interest in their security. They deserve minor new arms packages.

The main requirement of the United States is that it be serious. At this point neither the secretary of state nor the president appears prepared to go beyond bureaucratic reconnaissance; the full political commitment necessary even for small steps is not visible. A good case can be made that Soviet-American relations must be the Reagan administration's priority in the next few months.

Then there is the issue of how to keep the Syrians, who evidently are behind the recent assassinations of Arafat loyalists, from spoiling any Palestinian-Jordanian initiative not made in Damascus. Bringing in Syria means, among other things, bringing in its Soviet patron -- a strategic calculation rejected so far by both Israel and the United States. Until the administration includes the Syrians, it had better stay in second gear.