At his latest press conference, President Carter said, "I believe we will have peace in the Middle East with a secure Israel behind recognized borders, with the Palestinian question being resolved in all its aspects, and with peace between Israel and her neighbors."

That is where Carter came in over three years ago, bemused then, as now, with the mirage of a "comprehensive" peace settlement based on so-called self-determination for the Palestinians.

To the Israelis, those expressions are simply code words for an independent Palestinian state, something to which Israelis of every political persuasion are implacably opposed. At the same time, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its Arab supporters are just as determined to settle for nothing less.

A comprehensive peace is just as elusive today as it was in 1977 when Carter, soon after taking office, set olut to drum up a "summit" meeting to bring all the rival forces together to work out a general settlement.

It turned out to be not real, but unreal, politik. Still, in pursuing it, Carter on Oct. 1, 1977, went so far as to make a surprise deal with Moscow for a Geneva Peace Conference under the joint auspices of the two superpowers, even though that would have reinserted the Soviets into full participation in Middle East diplomacy.

The president deserves good marks for his later efforts at Camp David to bring Egypt and Israel together, but if his earlier initiative had prevailed there would not have been a Camp David or a separate peace between Cairo and Jerusalem, which is still the best bet for a step-by-step resolution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

The U.S.-Soviet move for a new Geneva summit meeting was circumvented only because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin had other ideas, columinating in Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and Begin's return visit to Egypt several weeks later.

What troubles the Begin government today is not just U.S. support for the United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank, but growing fears that Carter, if reelected, will again give impetus to the resurgent movement for Palestinian self-determination.

Nearly all our European allies, led by France and mindful of their dependence on Arab oil, are now giving at least lip service to self-determination, and this in turn is reviving talk about another general Middle East conference. In Europe, it is taken for granted that no overall settlement could be negotiated without the Russians. The Arabs agree. It is hard to see, though, how this could be arranged while the furor over Afghanistan persists.

Nevertheless, the Begin government is nervous. Despite Carter's protestations that he does not favor an independent Palestine, many Israelis suspect that his support for a Palestinian "homeland," or "entity," camouflages his acceptance of an eventual Palestine state. His comment that the Palestinian issue is similar to the civil rights movement in the United States was not reassuring either.

The next Arab-Israeli crisis is scheduled for May 26, the deadline for Begin and Sadat to agree on the terms of an interim period (five years) of "autonomy" for the Palestinians living on the West Bank. Egypt is arguing for a self-governing authority, with legislative and judicial, as well as executive, powers, plus the extension of voting rights to all Palestinians wherever they may live. But the Israelis feel that autonomy must be limited to administrative functions.

Carter has now invited Begin and Sadat to Washington, but just before doing so, he said the United States is engaged "in very important discussions and negotiations to establish full autonomy on the West Bank-Gaza area." aThat, of course, was a red flag to Israel, which is convinced that "full" autonomy would inevitably lead to Palestinian statehood, possibly under the aegis of Russia.

Although Sadat, to appease his Arab critics, is putting on a show of pressing Israel on the autonomy question, few believe tht he really wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state. The upshot is that the May 26 deadline will probably come and go without a decision, leaving the question in limbo, at least until after the U.S. presidential election.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the delay will seriously disturb the rapprochement of Egypt and Israel, both of which know that as long as they hang together they have very little to fear, despite all the dire threats of the PLO and the Arab "rejectionist" states. Moreover, their separate peace has so far been an effective substitute for a general, but imaginary, Arab-Israeli peace settlement.