THE ARABS LOOKED a bit silly, calling for a "unity" summit in Amman and then allowing their internal rivalries and their differences over the Iran-Iraq war to lead them into a grand public display of disunity. The PLO looks pitiful. Its reliance on Damascus to provide it a terrotorial base in Syria and a lodgment in Lebanon forced it, with apparent reluctance, to join Syria in a summit boycott -- this at a moment when the PLO had hoped to gather the Arab family around it to cope with the new American administration's Middle East plans.

It would be a mistake, however, to take the summit embarrassment as evidence that, since the Arabs plainly do not have their act together, the Arab-Israeli question can safely be put on indefinite hold. It is quite true that the Iran-Iraq war has underlined that the Arab-Israeli dispute is far from being the sole threat to the region's tranquillity and to the flow of oil. But this was always true. There will be other serious disturbances in the Gulf as time goes along, but through all of them the Israeli-Palestinian question will remain central. In that light, it is necessary to look more closely at the proceedings in Amman.

As the host, King Hussein was not pleased to find at least six Arab League members boycotting "his" summit. Pride aside, however, he did gain acceptances both from the conservative monied Arabs of the Gulf who subsidize his kingdom (and the PLO) and from Iraq, a key player notwithstanding its inability to finish off Iran. Since the day that the Israeli-Egyptian peace was signed, King Hussein has been trying to bring the other Arabs together behind a coherent and positive alternative to Camp David. He has not wanted to be simply a naysayer. He is still making that effort, all the more purposefully now that the incoming American administration as well as the next likely Israeli government are on record in favor of exploring the "Jordanian option" as a substitute or follow-on to the stalled Palestinian-autonomy talks.

The king regards himself not only as a true consensus Arab but as a special friend of the United States. He has had difficulty holding to both of those roles at the same time, but his sinuousness and staying power have been impressive. Americans have had their moments of vexation with him, but he remains a logical and irreplaceable prospective negotiating partner, and whose ambiguous relations with the PLO and the Palestinian movement as a whole offer possibilities available nowhere else.Americans and, for that matter, Israelis have no interest in seeing his stature diminished by the cut and thrust over the summit in Amman.