ROBERT S. STRAUSS, the president's choice to steer Israeli-Egyptian negotiations on Palestinian autonomy, made a typically brisk start. He arrived on a scene in which four previous sessions had produced a "stalemate" on an Egyptian proposal to negotiate a joint declaration of principles on Palestinian rights, and quickly got the parties to set aside that quest. Who, after all, will compromise his principles? Instead he got them to create "working groups" to dicuss the "modalities of electing self-governing authorities" in the West Bank and Gaza and the "rights, powers and duties" those authorities would have.

In accomplishing this particular result, Ambassador Strauss was at pains to establish that he speaks authoritatively for President Carter, that on autonomy tactics and issues he has rank on the State Department, and that he intends to plunk himself square in the middle of the action. Plainly, he is a pragmatist who first effort will be to move the negotiations and if in his judgment certain things get in the way, such as the furor over new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he will brusgh them away. So it is that he is leaving it to other American officials to assure the rest of the Arab world that the United States cares about Elon Moreh.

Whether this highly personal, unconventional, somewhat careening style is suitable for the formidable task in front of Mr. Strauss is, of course, debatable. The fact is, however, that the Arab-Israeli dispute more precisely, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute has not been a notable showplace for conventional diplomacy over the last 30-odd years. The man who accomplished the most in the region, Jimmy Carter, did so by an idiosyncratic approach that left the professionals nonplused. It is enough for now that Mr. Strauss has the initial cooperation, if not yet the full confidence, of Egypt and Israel. He is nowhere near drawing in the Palestinians, but that will come, if at all, down the road.

To be sure, no American negotiator, no matter how diligent and resourceful, can make the parties act against their own perceived interests. In this regard, it is useful to note just what Egypt and Israel contributed to the little "breakthrough" claimed Friday by Mr. Strauss. Egypt stepped back from its demand, which was going nowhere, that principles be negotiated first. Israel had previously softened the atmosphere by acting on some of the "confidence-building" measures Cairo had sought: reopening Bir Zeit University; canceling the trials of Arabs arrested in demonstrations in Nablus; and taking some steps to release Palestinian prisoners and allow family reunions. In addition, to accommodate the United States, Israel freed an American woman, Terre Fleener, who had pleaded guilty to helping Palestinians plan terror.

No one should underestimate the ferocious difficulty of the Palestinian autonomy issue, which the Strauss mission has not even begun to resolve. But some modest satisfaction can be taken that a process is under way.