PRESIDENT CARTER'S new Mideast peace negotiator, Sol Linowitz, professes to see a chance that Israel and Egypt will meet their May deadline for agreement on Palestinian self-rule. He has little company. Most people see a diminishing prospect for any movement soon. It is not simply that the Camp David process was bound to drag when Egypt and Israel, at peace themselves, got to the hard part involving the Palestinians; it is also that both the United States, in 1980, and Israel, no later than early 1981, face elections. And Iran is a powerful distraction.

There is a certain general temptation to say, with resignation, that it's just as well to wait a year and a half for the next push. The Israeli government, seeing crisis as the logical alternative, would be delighted to delay. Egypt would fret but, on the evidence, would not falter. Demonstrably, many Palestinians would rather kick Menachem Begin around and set bombs in bus stations than suffer the political stresses of composing a responsible negotiating policy. The oil Arabs in the Persian Gulf, victims of their own propaganda about "Zionists" dictating American policy, would probably only grumble.

It adds up to a limited case for an Arab-Israeli pause, and Mr. Carter appears to endorse it by keeping the autonomy talks in the hands of a part-time personal representative rather than letting the activist State Department bureacracy take over.

If this is to be the approach, however, its flaws have got to be recognized, especially by Israelis and Palestinians. The notion that delay is useful for either of them in any but a superficial and passing sense is absurd, a telling comment on the myopia of their current leaders.

For the Israelis, delay increases the domestic and international costs, already immense, of ruling a million-odd restive and resentful foreigners. For Palestinians, delay ensures the deepening and prolonging of a painful uprootedness. The two leadership groups are experts at finding excuses not to seek out the patterns of coexistence that must eventually be their common lot.But how long will their peoples accept this sterile routine? Israelis and Palestinians claim to be the masters of their own destinies, but in fact both have been increasing their dependence on the United States, to similarly bad effect. They can reverse this unworthy and fruitless condition only by reaching out to each other. There is no better time than during a period when most people are looking the other way.