IF PEACE between Israel and Egypt is to be consummated, as now seems virtually certain, the leaders of those two countries deserve profound tribute. But it seems to us undeniable that it was only by Jimmy Carter's transcendent vision and steadiness that such a result could be achieved. At a critical moment in Jerusalem on Monday when it appeared to many that all hope was lost, he went before the Knesset (see excerpts on the opposite page) and summoned the Israelis "to contemplate the tragedy of failure." Almost by his own will, he forced forward the negotiations that culminated less than 24 hours later in his announcement that "we have defined all of the main ingredients of a peace treaty." Peace between Israel and Egypt, assuming that it comes, will in large measure be President Carter's gift.

To be sure, the essential step of Israeli cabinet and parliamentary approval must still be taken. Anwar Sadat runs a government where, as he did yesterday, he can alter positions on immense national issues on his own. Menachem Begin leads a government democratic to the point of disorderliness. The compensation is, of course, that in Israel a decision reflects a fully worked out national consensus and is not subject to abrupt or capricious change. It is worth pointing out here that, yesterday's news stories notwithstanding, the Knesset will vote on the treaty as a single package, not article by article. The treaty was negotiated as a bundle of tradeoffs and it could not conceivably be ratified in any other way.

The text of the treaty is not yet available. Evidently, however, Mr. Carter, having by Sunday gained Egyptian-Israeli agreement on the dominant issues, then put forward new proposals on the lesser issues. Mr. Sadat accepted the new proposals; the Israeli cabinet takes them up today. We have the impression that the draft is superior to what the Americans presented last December, when negotiations stalled, in that it deals to Israeli satisfaction with the current fact of West Bank rejection of the Camp David process and it nails down solutions to all problems subject to being resolved at this time. Yet the draft maintains what is, for President Sadat, a politically essential connection to a comprehensive settlement involving other Arabs. We can only hope that, even as many of these others denounce the new draft, they start to look at it quietly and closely to see the very great potential in it for them.

The treaty, if ratified, will not enforce itself nor end all tensions between Israelis and Egyptians. A large continuing role, one whose dimensions Mr. Carter has yet to detail, will be required of the United States. It seems plain, however, that the problems he has left (or introduced) are more than manageable when set against those he has helped resolve. Without Egypt as a belligerent, another Arab-Israeli war seems remote. Those awaiting a formal Israeli start on Palestinian self-determination will be able to see soon the treaty's contribution to this prime goal. The peace-for-territory exchange at the heart of this treaty can be tested as a model for solutions on Israel's other borders. Then there are the political and strategic advantages flowing to the United States from this great success of American policy, not to speak of the political advantages flowing to Mr. Carter.

For 30 years war seemed the endless fate of the Middle East. Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter then found themselves partners in an effort to do nothing less than to defy fate. They are now on the verge of an extraordinary -- and humbling -- achievement.