The two-hour drive from Jerusalem to Gaza: a journey from the Judean hills to the Mediterranean and from modern Israel to pre-modern Palestine. The car speeds past prosperous agricultural settlements down to the resort beaches of Ashkelon. Only minutes away, dozens of Israeli soldiers wait at the closely guarded border of the Gaza Strip for rides to nearby Gaza City.

By the standards of West Bank towns such as Hebron and Nablus, the Israelis consider Gaza "safe," at least for the moment. Although the PLO has become more influential among Gaza's notables, the organization does not dominate all aspects of political and cultural life as it has come to do on the West Bank. Old professional and commercial links with Jordan remain intact, for one thing, while Egypt -- if only by virtue of geography -- plays a role in Gaza affairs that may have increased, paradoxically, since Israel took over the Strip in 1967.

Although death threats regularly reach local Arab leaders considered insufficiently friendly to the PLO, there have been almost no assassinations to date. Hundreds of Gaza residents defy PLO orders each week and travel to El Arish, which Egypt regained under the terms of the treaty with Israel. Nor has the PLO shown itself strong enough to "destabilize" Gaza through riots, strikes or terrorist activities. Meanwhile, the Egyptian connection deepens: thousands of Gazans now study in Egypt's universities and schools, and dozens of Egyptian papers and magazines can be bought daily in Gaza City.

"What will be the future of my children?" one pro-PLO Gaza leader asked me. "What should I teach them? Should they learn to be Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians or Palestinians?" His question reflects accurately the state of political uncertainty in Gaza, from which a small measure of hope can be drawn. How many West Bank Arabs today would raise a similar question?

Despite the surface calm, neither the Palestinian Arab leaders nor Israeli military officers with whom I spoke in Gaza City held out much hope for a rapid or safisfactory solution to the Palestinian political dilemma, whether through the Camp David "full autonomy" formula or through the Arab demands for "self-determination" variously defined.

Mayor Rashad-al-Shawa spoke to me at length about self-determination. Like King Hussein of Jordan himself, the mayor -- whom Israeli officials consider "the unofficial Jordanian 'ambassador' in the Gaza Strip" -- called for creation of an "interim" Palestinan state out of the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Could negotiations for self-determination begin with Gaza, I asked, if only to avert in the early stages the more difficult problems posed for Israel (and possibly Egypt) by the West Bank? Rashad-al-Shawa dismissed the idea: "No, because we don't have confidence in Israel." The mayor fears, as do other Palestinian leaders in Gaza, that through such Israeli-Egyptian negotiations, the Gaza Strip might have "full autonomy" imposed upon it and become an isolated Mediterranean "Bantustan."

Despite Rashad-al-Shawa's disclaimers, the prospect of beginning serious negotiations in Gazam, whether over autonomy or self-determination, before confronting the West Bank issues must not be precluded, especially given the comparatively cordial interplay of Israeli authority and most segments of Arab leadership within the Strip. The Israeli commander in Gaza, Brigadier Gen. Itzhak Segev and his top officers, many of whom spoke fluent Arabic, appeared at ease in dealings that I witnessed with local Palestinian notables, and the inherent conflicts between occupiers and occupied seem to have developed a measure of mutual restraint often lacking in the West Bank occupation.

"There is a chance to start in Gaza," one leading Palestinian professional with close ties to both the PLO and the Egyptians told me in Gaza City, "if the end is clear." Even Arafat's Fatah, he argued, could be persuaded to tolerate a Gaza initiative in time if Israel's commitment to Palestinian "self-determination" -- he carefully avoided the term "statehood" throughout our talk -- became evident at the start of negotiations.

Such a commitment, however, poses an impossible precondition for almost all Israeli politicians at this point except for the extreme left and the Peace Now movement. Already the Begin government has begun an ultranationalist assault on the Labor opposition for allegedly preparing to "sell out" Israel by creating a Palestinian state if returned to power. The allegation, if it becomes widely accepted by the Israeli public, could cost labor significant support in the next election.

Despite the attacks, when I interviewed Labor Party leader Shimon Peres at his Tel Aviv office, he reiterated his party's commitment, once in office, to negotiate a return of captured territory for realistic security arrangements and genuine peace in the area. I asked if some dramatic initiative on Israel's part similar to Sadat's imaginative trip to Jerusalem might be needed to break the diplomatic impasse. Peres said simply: "I will go anywhere in the Middle East for peace." Would he fly to Amman, if invited, to persuade King Hussein to join the negotiating process? "Yes, undoubtedly."

Israelis remain acutely conscious of the manner in which U.S. policy toward the Middle East becomes hopelessly entangled in American domestic politics during presidential election years. My own discussions with both government officials and oppositon leaders indicated that any pressure from the Carter administration to obtain a breakthrough on the autonomy issue prior to the November election would be widely opposed in Israel.

Even in Gaza, Palestinian Arab leaders with whom I spoke cautioned against the United States' setting unattainable "deadlines" for agreement and stressed, instead, the patient search for some acceptable statement on ultimate ends. ("Whether this process takes a year, or two, or four, or whether, is less important to us," observed one highly placed Gazan political figure.)

The problem of accommodating what Israelis intend offering as "full autonomy" and what Palestinians want through "self-determination may prove intractable in the end, but there remain elements in the situation at Gaza -- nolonger present in the West Bank -- that might encourage carefully prepared talks:

1) The older economic and political links to Jordan, which have not yet been completely submerged in a new, PLO-dominated local leadership.

2) Growing economic and cultural ties with Egypt.

3) Connections between a large Gaza work force and the Israeli economy, also developing at an accelerated pace.

4) An absence of Jewish settlements within the Strip.

5) The absence thus far of major Palestinian or Israeli terrorist activities.

6) The apparent ability of Gazan leaders and Israeli officers to maintain contacts at a tolerable human level that transcends -- and implicitly rejects -- the demands of frenzied extremism on both sides.

Should some incident or series of incidents polarize Gaza as completely as the West Bank, of course, these conditions might quickly change. But the opportunity for negotiation, however frail, remains to be tested.

In the ancient and impoverished Gaza Strip, the region's modern Samsons may either move once again inexorably toward peace or, conversely, pull the pillars down upon all those -- whether Arab or Jew -- still unwilling or unable to live with the painful realities of reconciliation.