he green-and-white helicopter beat low over rows of bulging peanut harvest wagons and set down near second base on the town softball field. A short, formal man in a blue suit stepped out through a swirl of red dust, embraced former president Jimmy Carter and kissed the hand of his wife, Rosalynn.

A Marine Corps honor guard snapped to attention as the Americus High School Band struck up the theme from "Star Wars." Peanut farmers in baseball caps watched shoulder-to-shoulder with Orthodox Jews. Children in colorful yarmulkes waved tiny American and Israeli flags.

"Shalom!" shouted the crowd of 1,500.

Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, had come to Plains to pay his respects to the former American president who had forged a peace between his country and Egypt. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a similar pilgrimage to Plains last month.

Carter, in a blue suit and white shirt, seized the unofficial occasion to remind Begin that he had miles to go before Israel granted the Palestinian people in occupied territory their "legitmate rights" to determine "their own future," as he had agreed to in 1978 "on a mountaintop in Maryland" when the three leaders reached a historic agreement for peace in the Middle East.

"I'm quoting directly from the Camp David accords," said Carter. "We promised a 'freely elected' self-governing authority 'to provide full autonomy to the inhabitants' of the West Bank and Gaza, and that Israel would withdraw its military and civilian government from the area.

"These are, indeed, bold and courageous commitments, requiring leaders who can shoulder responsibility and bear it well," he said. "We have that kind of leader here today as our guest."

"For Jews," he went on, "the most important issue is the security of Israel, and for Arabs . . . Palestinian rights. This is what we promised at Camp David and our prayers will go with you as you seek fulfillment of these promises."

And then, the former president who once joked that he happily relinquished two nemeses to his successor Ronald Reagan--ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson and Begin--welcomed his "friend," Menachem Begin, to Plains.

On his visit, Sadat got dinner and a gift, a glass sculpture of an olive wreath. Begin got no present, only a kosher lunch at the house and a five-pound box of pecans from an Albany, Ga., synagogue. Harry Lutz, a farmer, tried to give him a sack of yams, but Israeli secret service agents rebuffed the sweet potato initiative.

Begin praised Carter as a peacemaker and pledged to abide by the accords, promising to seek a solution to the stalled Palestinian autonomy agreement when he meets Sadat in Cairo next month. "President Sadat and I promise we shall do our best," he said.

Eventually, he promised, there would be free elections followed by "full autonomy" for Palestinian Arabs and those in the Gaza Strip, and a withdrawal of Israeli forces. "You have my word," he said.

Begin reminisced of Camp David: "For 12 days and nights, we not only weighed every section, every paragraph, every sentence, every word--but sometimes every letter. I asked Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, 'How long are we going to stay in this concentration camp deluxe?' He said, 'You will probably start digging a tunnel,' but we didn't have a digging problem."

Joel Arnon, Israel's consul general in Atlanta, explained the longstanding personality clash between Carter and Begin: "They are two strong personalities who both believe they have a direct line to God."

Orthodox Jews drove to Plains from as far away as Atlanta, 180 miles distant. Philip Ramati, 9, came to Plains with his parents and fellow students from Savannah's Hebrew Day School. "Begin is a real nice prime minister," he reflected, as youngsters broke into an emotional chorus of "Oseh Shalom!"

Richard Gale, 42, a local businessman recently moved here from Boston to manage an automotive supply plant, came to the ball field for the history of the event. "It's kind of quiet down here," he said. "Nothing much happens."

One girl reacted as if Mick Jagger, not Begin, had come to town, swooning in his presence, as old and young pressed close for autographs, a touch. He kissed Helen Schulman, 58, of nearby Albany, on the hand.

"I'm going to take it home and bronze it, like I did the kids' shoes," vowed her husband, Alex.