One year ago today, President Carter presided over his most impressive foreign-policy accomplishment -- the signing by President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of the Camp David Agreements. Egyptian-Israeli relations are presently fourishing, and yet the promise of Camp David remains unfulfilled. Rhetoric about a comprehensive peace and Palestinian rights cannot disguise the lack of progress in broadening the scope of Arab-Israeli reconcilation. Failure, which now seems likely, would be a sharp blow to U.S. influence in much of the Arab world.

Peace between Egypt and Israel is a net plus for U.S. interests, even though it will not bring stability to the rest of the Middle East. It has virtually eliminated the risk of a major war on the scale of those of 1967 and 1973, with all the attendant dangers of superpower confrontation and oil embargoes. In addition, it ensures that Egypt will not be forced back into heavy dependence on the Soviet Union. For the first time, U.S.-Egyptian relations can develop on an unprecedented scale, without strains in U.S.-Israeli ties.

As important as this is, the issues of the West Bank, Gaza, the Palestinians -- and of Jerusalem -- remain unresolved and the current negotiations are foundering. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and among the Palestinians, tensions are mounting. Instability in these areas deeply worries the conservative leaders of the Arabian Peninsula, especially the Saudis. To offset these trends, the credibility of the peace process needs to be restored.

At Camp David, Egypt, Israel and the United States agreed to try to resolve the Palestinian question in stages. There would be a transitional period of five years to provide the million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with institutions of self-government, with further negotiations to determine the "final status" of these territories.

While this concept was sufficiently open-ended to have considerable potential, it also had obvious weaknesses. It was vague about the final goal of the negotiations. Nor had the Palestinians or Jordanians been consulted about a process that envisaged their eventual cooperation and participation.

These flaws could have been overcome with time. But one key element of the Camp David understandings immediately collapsed. Carter thought he had extracted a commitment from Begin to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza during the negotiations over those territories. Begin quickly asserted that the freeze would last only three months. He won. In the eyes of many Arabs, the credibility of the Camp David process -- and of the United States -- lost.

In addition, the open-ended potential of the negotiations was narrowed by Begin's statements that the only solutions for the final status of the West Bank and Gaza were indefinite "autonomy," with Israel retaining ultimate control, or Israeli annexation. The administration did not challenge Begin's assertions, although they were sharply at variance with U.S. views on Israel's commitments under U.S. Resolution 242 -- withdrawal in exchange for peace and security.

Since then, Arab suspicions that the United States is satisfied with a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace have grown. Few Palestinians place confidence in the present talks. And many Americans seem to feel that Sadat and Begin, their romance in full bloom, should be left alone to deal with the Palestinian question.

But if we turn our backs on the current negotiations, or if we act as less than a full partner, merely blessing whatever Sadat and Begin choose to do, our already sagging prestige will plummet. This is what justifies an active American role, not the fear of Saudi oil pressure or concern that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty will collapse without progress in the Palestinian talks.

President Carter has committed himself to implementing the Camp David accords. He has appointed one of his shrewdest political advisers to represent the United States in the current talks. Failure will damage the reputation of the United States and its two closest allies in the region.

How, then to proceed? Not by seeking new U.N. resolutions. Not by chasing after the PLO. And not by looking for artful formulations on self-determination and national rights for the Palestinians. We have had enough rhetoric. We need results.

We should accept the reality that Palestinians and Jordanians, despite Sadat's persistent optimism, will remain on the sidelines throughout the negotiations. The standard for success is not whether they participate, but whether Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza accept the results of the negotiations by voting in the elections to establish self-government.

The issues of immediate concern to Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation are control over land and water resources, the size and functions of the Israeli military presence, and continued land expropriation and construction of new Israeli settlements. On these points, agreements that hold promise that the future will be significantly better than the present will have a chance of gaining Palestinian support.

In addition, we can advance the negotiations by focusing on two points. First, the United States should try again to get Begin to live up to the commitment that Carter thought he had at Camp David to stop Israeli settlement activity during the talks. These settlements are hurting the negotiations, and most make no contribution to Israel's security. Nor are they pointing the way to coexistence as settlers live behind barbed wire on the expropriated land of their Arab neighbors. Security and coexistence are legitimate goals for Israel, but new settlements work at cross-purposes with those aims and should not be subsidized by the United States.

Second, the United States has long maintained that the principles of U.N. Resolution 242 remain the basis for a peace settlement in the Middle East. One of those principles is that Israel should withdraw from occupied territories once peace is achieved. There is ample scope for negotiating how much withdrawal, the conditions and timetable for withdrawal, and the security arrangements that must accompany withdrawal. But the Israeli government can expect no support for its current interpretation that Resolution 242 does not require Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza under any conditions. At Camp David, this issue was sidestepped. It cannot be ignored indefinitely.

More than tangible national interests are at stake in the negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza. Also at issue is whether the United States and its partners, Egypt and Israel, have the skill, the power and the qualities of leadership to find peaceful solutions to dangerous conflicts. The promise of Camp David in September 1978 was that we could. The fear in September 1979 is that we cannot.