The basic situation in the Middle East is that Egypt refuses to deal with Israel if somehow the West Bank Palestinians are not seriously brought in, and Israel refuses to deal with Egypt if they are. How can that circle be squared?

The American answer is to muscle through. That means to keep telling the Israelis that they "retain an option" in the West Bank, even while telling the Palestinians that the Israelis do not. It means counting on the Israelis to be softened by an Egyptian-Israeli treaty, by persuasion and by pressure, while the Palestinians are brought along by the other Arabs. "Process" is the magic word.

I have to say I was more hopeful about the potential mellowing and catalyzing effects of "process" before a two-week spin through Israel and the four neighboring Arab countries.

The finding that sobered me most is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are anywhere near ready to move forward the five-year "full autonomy" is in daily dispute in Israeli. But what his government means is daily more evident: Israeli control over public lands and all water, a rearranged but continuing occupation, control of security, separate jurisdiction for Jewish settlers. This is very remote from the real autonomy Anwar Sadat plainly has in mind.

Moreover, Israelis across 95 percent of the political spectrum rigidly reject the basic Carter point-the one American diplomats tirelessly stress in trying to sell Camp David to Palestinians and other Arabs-that though autonomy may be limited at the start, it will eventually produce an authentic Palestinian homeland. The Israelis, turned to salt by this prospect, are not told it won't happen: they're told it will be safe, the best thing for them. A government that appearted to agree would not last a day.

As for the operative position of the Palestinians, it holds that the autonomy is a "new slavery" and that the promise of a satisfactory "final status" is an old snare. If the Palestinians are in a bargaining posture, they conceal it well.

This is not your familiar, frazzling, but somehow soluble Egyptian-Israeli argument. The Israeli-Palestinian argument is real. What with the emphasis so far on the EgyptianIsraeli treaty, Israeli-Palestinian differences on autonomy have not surfaced conspicuously either in Egyptian-Israeli negotiation or in Israeli discourse. As they do-soon-a crisis dwarfing all others since Camp David will ensue.

Some people would not muffle the crisis. Sadat's Arab critics, including the Palestinians, and perhaps some domestic doubters count on the autonomy gap to destroy Camp David (and Sadat) and to usher in a more radical strategy. Various of Beginhs domestic opponents, increasingly preferring the status quo and even war to Camp David, therefore welcome the autonomy gap and are pressing a reluctant Jerusalem to open a debate on autonomy precisely to widen it.

Neither Sadat nor Jimmy Carter wants to explode Camp David, but Sadat's politics and Carter's impatience are propelling them to push autonomy in a way that will have that result.

We should be using the current pause in Egyptian-Israeli talks to get a better grip on the autonomy issue. The purpose is not to let the Israelis squirm off the West Bank hook, which they would if they could, but, to save Sadat in spite of himself and-in a sense-in spite of Carter, so that movement toward peace can be sustained.

It is of the essence to keep the "linkage" between Sinai and the West Bank loose. Yes, require Israel to table its current ideas on autonomy, so that the expansionist impulses and security anxieties behind them can start to be worked over and worked out. But do not make Egyptian-Israeli agreement on autonomy a condition of carrying out an Egyptian-Israeli treaty, for it is not within reach. The Camp David agreement wisely delayed for a few years a requirement to achieve such agreement. The hustle-up tactics pursued since by Sadat and Carter must yield to the slower pace anticipaged on all sides three months ago.

I like the idea of trying to do autonomy in Gaza first. It's bite-sized. Cairo, whose idea this is, is better situated to deliver Palestinian participation. Politically, it's a lot easier than the West Bank for Begin. Why not?

Finally, the Palestine Liberation Organization must be brought in. At this point, only the United States can do this effectively, if anyone can. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia can't, Israel won't. For accepting the limited goals and tactics of the state it says it wishes to become, the PLO should get a seat at the peace table. Morally and politically, this would be Jimmy Carter's highest contribution to peace.