THE MIDEAST'S first aerial dogfight in five years, between Israeli and Syrian warplanes over Lebanon, is disturbing on several grounds. It underlines the continuing volatility of the region, notwithstanding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. It confirms the difficulty of seeing that recipients honor the terms on which the United States provides them arms. In this instance, Israel, which is never slow to warn that Washingnton cannot police use of planes it sells Arabs, has been forced into testy denials that it violated strictures against use of its new American-made F15s for anything other than "legitimate self-defense." Then, the incident is bound to kindle charges, extremely embarrassing to Egypt, that by its peace with Israel it released and emboldened Israel to attack other Arabs.

Every argument is circular in the Mideast, including the arguments over this dogfight, and they all start with the 30-year Israeli-Palestinian war. This is the real Mideast dogfight. Why were Israel's planes flying over Lebanon in the first place? To strike at the Palestinians, who strike at Israel from bases in Lebanon. Since Israel and Egypt made peace, the Palestinians have stepped up the pace of their terror and the Israelis have stepped up their response, to the point of replacing tit-for-tat retaliation by continuous preemptive "planned activity" against Palestinian installations. This time, for some reason, the usually discreet Syrian air force rose to meet the attacking Israeli planes. Other Israeli planes, flying "cover," shot up the Syrians.

Aside from what it does to Damascus, the incident plays directly into the hands of those Israelis and those Palestinians who believe, or prefer to believe, that their differences can be settled only by military means. It is precisely the point of the negotiations on Palestinian autonomy, into which the United States is now anxiously trying to breathe life, to provide a political alternative.