Let us look at the question of the Palestinian charter, which could end up at the center of the Middle East policy struggle that is virtually certain to unfold in Washington this spring. pHere is a likely scenaric:

By May, the Camp David target date, Egypt and Israel will not have agreed on Palestinian self-rule. The American effort to draw West Bankers into an automomy process -- on the theory that they are something other than the PLO -- will look sad. American embassies will report, eagerly, the Arab countries' insistence that they will cooperate on neither security nor oil unless the United States forces Israel into a Palestinian settlement. Anwar Sadat will be on the phone to Jimmy Carter pleading for a summit. Menachem Begin will be rallying supporters in the Jewish community. Carter will be eyeing his place in the polls -- and in history.

One option for Carter will be in tread water, waiting for the Iranian-Afghan fever to cool and hoping Israel will choose a new leader in the elections of December 1981. Israelis might call this statemanships; Arabs might call this surrender. Either way, it has no friends in the bureaucracy and it is not an appealing option to a politican under pressure.

A second option is to resume the initiative the administration made and dropped last summer to write a new formula to let the United States slip around its 1975 commitment not to deal with the PLO. The impulse behind the effort last August was a fear that the Camp David formula simply was not attracting Palestinian participation. The result was an Israeli accusation of bad faith and an American retreat.

There is right now in the bureaucracy a lot of sentiment for a similar word-juggling exercise. Not only does international tension make a Mideast settlement (or the conspicuous Palestinian-oriented pursuit of one) more urgent, it is argued, but Camp David in its Palestinian aspect has been tried and found wanting. This option could look quite good to Jimmy Carter this spring. Israeli protests could be his badge of political courage.

A third option -- my choice -- starts with a recognition that the PLO is the one body with an authentic claim to speak for the Palestinians. It ends with a demand that the PLO earn its place at a table with the United States -- and take a place at a table with Israel, which Washington would undertake to deliver -- by directly accepting Israel's right to exist. Acceptance would be shown by the amending of the Palestine National Charter.

The charter, the basic Palestinian political document, is the subject of a fascinating forum in The Middle East, an Arab-directed magazine published in London. An introduction observes, correctly, that the charter "is often used as a last line of defense in the West against recognition of the PLO on the grounds that it calls for the "destruction of Israel." Asking "Should the Palestinians change the charter?" the magazine collects the answers of "11 prominent political and intellectual leaders," a Palestinian "cross section." "The overwhelming response," according to the introduction, "was an unequivocal, unemotional 'No.'"

But wait. Is it not interesting that this magazine raises the question at all? That one contributor addresses "tacticians among my fellow Palestinians who argue that the benefits accruing from amendment of the charter outweigh the objections?" That when you actually read the forum, the majority response turns out to be not an unequivocal no but an equivocal maybe?

PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi says, "Our charter is not a bible." The PLO's man at the United Nations, Zuhdi TERZI, suggests it could be changed when "conditions change." PLO research director Sabri Jiryis would consider amendments if there is "flexibility on the Israeli side." Columbia University professor Edward Said awaits "the right time." Hisham Sharabi of Georgetown University says the Palestinians "must first have their basic rights recognized." Musa Mazzawi of London University asks, "What would the Palestinians get in return for the surrender of some of their rights?"

I take this to mean that the PLO in its contorted and perverse way is seized of the question of whether to change its charter and accept Israel. It is at least open to argument, perhaps ready to deal. It is exactly where the Israelis are on the question of accepting the PLO: one long wrenching internal crisis away from a just-conceivable yes.

In sum, the administration has not begun to exhaust the possibilities of converting mutual non-recognition by the PLO and Israel into mutual recognition. Jimmy Carter could make a difference, if -- only if -- he were careful and did not demand results by Nov. 4.