Egypt, Israel and the United States will all deny it, but in the view of most of the world the Camp David approach to Middle East peace is at a dead end. After a year of desultory negotiations, the Camp David partners have failed to reach agreement by their self-imposed target date of May 26.

Talks will drag on. There is, after all, nothing scared about May 26. But the aura of failure will hang over the negotiations. The Europeans are eagerly waiting to pronounce them dead so they can launch their own initiative.

All this could have been avoided. The Camp David Accords were a promising start, and they did produce the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. But the larger gamble made by Presidents Carter and Sadat and Prime Minister Begin was that they could start a process that would gradually resolve the Palestinian demension of the Arab-Isreli conflict. That was always a long shot.

What went wrong? Why was it so difficult for Egypt and Israel, with American support, to sketch and outline for limited Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gagza? After all, the tough issues -- final borders, sovereignty, self-determination and Jerusalem -- would be left for later. On the table were problems of security, the transfer of some authority from the Israwli military government to an elected Palestinian body and procedures for those elections. These were difficult issues, but hardly insurmountable.

Egypt and Isreal bear some responsibility, but the United States made its share of mistakes too. These are worth reviewing. Who negotiates?

The United States has successfully helped negotiate disengagement agreements after the 1973 war, the Camp David accords and the Egypt-Israel treaty. In each case, the secretary of state led the U.S. negotiating effort, with strong presidential backing.

President Carter nonetheless decided last spring to try a "special negotiator." But a "special negotiator," no matter how skillful, will not be taken as seriously abroad as the secretery of state. Nor will he have the same easy access to all leaders of the Middle East, especially the Arab critics of Camp David. Back home, he will find it difficult to mobilize the resources of the bureaucracy, and he will have a hard time relating the details of his negotiation to a larger strategic design. Those in the White House who thought that Robert Strauss or Sol Linowitz would do better than the secretary of state were deluding themselves. Timing.

Immediately after the Egypt-Israel treaty in March 1979, the United States should have moved quickly to lay the substantive groundwork for Palestinian self-government negotiations. A look at the calendar would show that whatever role we could play as diplomatic broker would become more complicated in early 1980 with the onset of presidential elections. Instead, Carter let matters drift. Last April he vainly sought to accelerate the talks by summoning Sadat and Begin. That needlessly raised expectations and focused attention on May 26, without doing much to advance the negotiations. A U.S. position.

In the best of circumstances, the American negotiator has a thankless task. If he sides with Egypt or Israel on specific issues, he invites criticism. If he remains strictly neutral, nothing happens.

Experience has shown the futility of asking Egypt and Israel to trade formal proposals. This procedure leads to deadlock, since neither side can readily make concessions to the other. If peace talks are to succeed, the United States will have to produce a negotiating text, as was done at Camp David. Self-inflicted wounds.

In the past year, the Carter administration has developed a had habit of needlessly complicating its task as mediator. Last August, without consulting its Camp David Partners, the administration announced its intention to sponsor a new U.N. resolution on Palestinian rights. When Begin and Sadat both objected, the president hastily retreated. Again in March, the United States started down the path of wooing Arab support by voting in the United Nations against Israeli settlements. And again the president reversed course, blaming the vote on a "communications failure." He cavalierly invited Jordan's King Hussein to the White House, neglecting to mention that the lunch would come within days of official visits by Sadat and Begin. Hussein understandably felt insulted by what he saw as a clumsy attempt to associate him with Camp David.

What to do now? The first step is to stop making so many needless mistakes. The carter administration probably holds a record for good ideas badly executed. Promise less, deliver more.

Instead of continuing with the Camp David talks halfheartedly, the administration should either make a serious attempt to reach agreement or suspend the talks and consider alternatives. To make the talks succeed would require Secretary Muskie to take charge of overseeing the negotiations as a top priority. An American draft agreement would have to be put forth soon as a basis for negotiation. The president would have to be prepared to put his authority on the line when the going gets tough.

The administration seems to believe that such an assertive approach is precluded by election-year realities. The easy way out will be to let the talks drift, but most of our friends and all of our adversaries will view this as a sign of weakness and of catering to narrow electoral interests. It would therefore do more for U.S. credibility if the formal talks wre suspended instead of limping along aimlessly. The time between now and the elections could be used constructively to prepare the way for a new effort next year.