MORROCCO, an old friend, a regional strategic partner and a moderate in the Arab-Israeli context, wants arms to use against the Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara. But the United States, regarding Morocco's claim to sovereignty in the territory as one so far unvalidated by the people's will, has a policy of frowning on sales, even to friends, of arms for use in annexing territory. The Moroccans say, increasingly stiffly, they do not understand. The Americans, in turn, wince, suspecting that Morocco is tempting in a wider war (perhaps with Algeria, Polisario's sponsor) than it can handle and fearing that continued frustration or outright defeat may endanger the stability of King Hassan and his regine.

Ordinarily, in a situation as caught up in contradictions as the one, the United States would hem and haw and urge the Moroccans, the guerrillas and the Algerians to negotiate out their differences. But interested Africans and Europeans have been trying to help them do precisely that, and their efforts have foundered on Morrocco's refusal to permit a genuine test of self-determination among the 70,000 or so desert tribesmen of Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Polisario guerrillas have begun conducting raids into southern Morocco, some involving hundreds of troops. The State Department suggests these attacks have produced a "fundamental" change: "Morocco is no longer fighting only to pacify a region it has annexed; it is also defending itself within its own territory against external attack." Implicit in this analysis is a rationale for loosening the restrictions on arms sales to Morocco.

But the analysis is incomplete. The United States has a clear interest in helping a friend maintain the integrity of its own territory. But Polisario's attacks into Morocco clearly flow from Morocco's military operations against Polisario in Western Sahara. If the administration is to loosen the arms restrictions, it must redouble its efforts to win Moroccan acceptance for a respectable exercise of self-determination in the contested territory. In the greater urgency Morocco now plainly feels, the United States may have a fewer not available to other would-be mediators.

It remains only to add that the parallel with the American effort to provide security for Israel and self-determination for West Bank Palestinians is plain. The policy of pursuing both goals in tandem makes equal sense at both ends of the Mediterranean.