BARELY HAD IT become evident that Jimmy Carter was not going to come back from the Middle East with a treaty in hand than in public accounts and private murmurs accounts of his "failure" and of his return "empty-handed" began to go around. But this is, we believe, an inaccurate reading -- and not merely because events in the Mideast have a way of moving rollercoaster-style rather than along an easy and predictable track. The president's closest aides warned publicly last week that he did not expect a treaty to be signed on this trip. The drama of his mission notwithstanding, it is unfair to judge him against the superheated expectations of others. Beyond that, however this process unfolds, he has already succeeded in the important sense of helping bring Israel and Egypt closer together than they may ever have been before. This is no trivial achievement, especially if you take the view, as we do, that the negotiations are still on.

It's not yet clear just what happened on the president's mission, beyond the effort of both Israel and Egypt to shift to the other the burden of further compromise or, depending, the onus for not compromising. Both countries, it appears, extended themselves in new and serious ways. We are troubled, however, by reports suggesting that the issues long considered the most basice and difficult between them -- "linkage" to talks on Palestinian autonomy, and Egypt's commitments to other Arabs -- were negotiated more or less successfully but that once this was done, other issues not previously considered central to a treaty moved to the fore. Some of these latter issues, such as Israel's purchase of Sinai oil and the precise timing of an exchange of ambassadors, do not strike us as touching deep principles of the sort unquestionably touched by the linkage and commitments questions. We await more information.

In any event, we believe that the purpose of Mr. Carter's trip -- to unlock the stalemate of Camp David II -- was sound and that he has moved the negotiations along, even if Israel and Egypt are still short of final agreement. Certainly it would be premature to declare the negotiations at a dead end and to allow the two countries' quest for a treaty to be shifted into a contest for advantage in the American political arena. In the disappointment emanating from the Mideast, there has been created a kind of vacuum which is being partly filled by suggestions of "failure" by Jimmy Carter and the United States. In fact, there was no solid basis for expecting a signed treaty from his mission and if there is not yet peace, the biggest losers are those with the most responsibility for success and failure in the Middle East, and the most at stake, Israelis and Egyptians.