The AMERICAN AND ISRAELI governments have allowed what should have been a quiet professional exercise in arranging a Sinai peace force to become an ill-natured and highly visible dispute. Soon after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in March, it became clear that a Soviet veto would force the removal in July of the United Nations Emergency Force set up in Sinai after the 1973 war. That created a problem but left adequate time in which to tackle it: to sift through the alternatives -- Egyptain-Israeli patrols, the independently established United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, an American-organized multinational force -- and, in particular, to resolve the question of whether the treaty commits the United States to organize that multinational force during or after the three-year period of Israel's Sinai withdrawal. Yet inexcusably the issue was allowed to slide past the UNEF deadline on July 24.

The Americans have been quick in this dispute to ascribe the breakdown to some Israeli combination of clogged politics and devious diplomacy. The Israelis have been no slower to lay the blame on assorted perceived bureaucratic and strategic failings of the United States. No doubt there are elements of truth in both analyses. Certainly there is a market for them in the public opinion of both countries. But to pursue these recriminations, especially in the irritated behind-the-hand manner that both governments have been employing in recent days, can only further roil the climate in which a solution to this problem must be sought. It is a question of the tone of voice in their regular passages of difficulty. On both sides there can be a rawness, a readiness to question motives, a neplect of common interest entirely out of keeping with the stake the two countries have in maintaining close ties.

There is a fudamental disparity at play: What for the Israelis is a matter of war and peace and the life of their nation is for the United States merely one of a number of important but second-ranking diplomatic enterprises. Neither physically nor psychologically is it a pairing of equals. This puts a special obligation on the United States. Typically businesslike and impatient, American officials often bruise the sensibilities of Israelis already painfully aware that their fate is being shaped by a powerful, distant and distracted nation that cannot possibly credit their full fears. The matter of the Sinai peacekeeping will surely be worknd out: One obvious path is to strengthen the guarantees against early or arbitrary dismissal of UNTSO in a crisis. The matter of the American attitude toward Israel needs much tending and care.