THE PALESTINIAN counterpart of elections has just been held in Cairo. The returns were mixed. Ideologically, the Palestinian mainstream continues to move in the right direction: toward explicit acceptance of Israel's right to exist. But it hasn't by a long shot arrived. The more moderate Palestinians find it unfair that they should be expected to accept Israel's national claims when Israel has yet to accept theirs. But the burden remains on them to demonstrate that they approve the premises of the settlement process of which at least some of them hope to become a part. One must say some because, as the Palestine National Council meeting in Cairo demonstrated, the Palestinians are divided and unable to put up strong leadership.

The Palestinians, not alone, regard Jimmy Carter as the key man - as well they might. In his first major Mideast pronouncement, on March 9, he ignored the Palestinians; he addressed the Arab states and held out just to them a powerful inducement - the return of virtually all the territory they lost in 1967 - to join a settlement process. But in his second pronouncement, on March 16, Mr. Carter did nto dodge. He endorsed "a homeland" for the Palestinians, while stating that to get a crack at it they must accept Israel's "right to be there." That is the fundamental trade-off. President Carter could not offer the Palestinians more. He could not offer the Israelis less. As in his acceptance on March 9 of the Arabs' territorial goals and the Israelis' political ones, he was saying to Palestinians and Israelis that each can get what it wants only by granting the other what it wants. Unsurprisingly, his remarks stirred mixed feelings in both camps.

The immediate practical problem is how to work the Palestinian problem into the board Arab-Israeli negotiations at Geneva, which the Carter administration is trying to crank up later this year. The Palestinians are out of phase. The Arab states would like to bring them to Geneva, perhaps tucked somehow into the Jordanian delegation, without first having them accept Israel's "right to be there." But the Israelis refuse - as they have every right to. And the United States, to keep faith with the Israelis and to earn their confidence for the tests sure to come, backs them in their refusal. The Palestians themselves seem torn between not wanting to miss the Geneva train for fear it will head toward a settlement without them, and not wanting to get aboard for fear it will take them to the kind of settlement they feel they can't accept. The push and pull on this question will be the stuff of diplomacy for months to come. The crucial thing to look for is what the Palestinians choose.

We would add a note to Mr. Carter's approach to the Mideast. It troubles us that he seems to determined to demonstrate personal command ofr foreign policy substance that he will take major steps without always consulting senior aides and that he will risk misstatements. But we think he is proceeding wisely, if unconventionally, nonetheless. For some years the dominating tactical question for the United States has been whether it should inject its own views on a settlement at an early stage or a late one. There is no automic magic or menace in either style. It is question of judgment and taste. We think Mr. Carter, by injecting his own views early, has made a good choice. It minimizes illusions; it lets the parties prepare for the necessary fundamental change. That Arabs and israelis alike are alternately growling and nodding shows they've gotten the message.