Quite correctly, George Ball advocates a two-fold military and diplomatic initiative aimed at rebuilding American military competence and at repairing "shaky political relations" in the Middle East [Our Threatened Lifeline," op-ed, Jan. 20]. But why are U.S. relations in the strategic Middle East so shaky? Rather than enumerating a list of possible contributing factors, Ball instead partakes of single-factor analysis. He attributes the entire weight of America's failure to its supporting Israel and "doltishly" ignoring the "prime reality" of the Palestine issue, as a result of which "we are alienating the whole Moslem world."

The fact that the present administration is engaged in enunciating a new doctrine for the Middle East and attempting to construct a new defense perimeter would suggest otherwise. The policy of containment originally devised in the Dulles era was premised on a strong "northern tier" collective security system along Russia's borders. Today this policy is a shambles; forward positions in the Moslem, non-Arab countries have been overrun from the Caucasus and circumvented via the eastern Mediterranean. In broad geopolitical terms, nothing better captures the reality of Soviet successes and U.S. errors of omission and commission than the need for retrenchment along the "southern tier" of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

The Soviet Union has managed to intimidate, neutralize or benefit from destabilization in each of the "northern tier" countries: Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. In addition, the United States and NATO have been outflanked what with Russian naval facilities in Southern Yemen and Ethiopia. These, however, are the very states located on the peripheries of the Arab Middle East and least concerned with or directly influenced by the Arab-Israeli conflict. This fundamental shift in the balance of power has taken place gradually over the past decade while Henry Kissinger was proclaiming the indivisibility of detente, and while George Ball was otherwise preoccupied with lecturing on how to save Israel in spite of itself. o

The United States will not presently save or redeem itself through a process of self-delusion or by appeasing oil-rich Arab potentates and extremist ayatollahs at the sacrifice of Israel's vital interests. Consider:

Despite Ball's harsh accusation, the United States since 1977 has not ignored the Palestine issue.

To label Israeli policy as colonialism, which Ball does, is to deny that Israel, like the Palestinians, even has any legal, historical and security claim to the West Bank. Both claims remain an open issue in what 40 years ago was appreciated as "a clash of right with right."

Even if a peaceful compromise solution of the Palestine dispute were to be effected either by a formula of autonomy or by territorial partition, there is little likelihood of its resulting in Ball's principal objectives: untroubled U.S.-Arab relations; a politically stable Middle East; any reduction of America's commitment to denying the region to the superpower rival; and foremost, of course, the free flow of oil.

The Palestine problem need not critically affect relations with the Arab states if Washington is determined not to allow it. Like everyone else at the moment, Arabs and Moslems are perched on the political fences, watching and gauging American resolve. They are more likely to be impressed by a dignified, resolute American response than by gestures of appeasement. They as well as Ball should be required to provide clear, unequivocal answers to straightforward questions: What does Washington have the right to expect of them? What is the acid test of Saudi moderation and pro-Western orientation? What is the genuine threat to their own long-term as well as immediate interests -- Israel or communist imperialism?

Egypt's President Anway Sadat and, independently, the recent 34-nation Islamic conference would seem to have their priorities straight: Soviet imperialism; extremist Islam in Iran and, only third, the Palestine problem. iHow strange that Ball should be counseling them otherwise.

The best deterrent against Soviet or Arab misperception can only be an unambiguous definition of where the United States draws the line -- on matters of principle as well as on world maps. Similarly, the only red prospect for ending the Palestine tragedy lies not in making it a function of regional and international considerations, but in decoupling the issues, dealing with each of its own merits and within as limited a context as possible.

Unless it results in a determined effort at acting from a position of strength, this winter of America's disillusionment with foreign relations can provide scarce satisfaction to this country's true friends abroad -- especially the Israelis, who, over the last three decades, have been the most consistent and dependable allies of the United States in that pivotal region of the Middle East.