THAT WAS SOME press conference former

presidents Ford and Carter held on Air Force One coming back from Cairo. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Jordan could hear themselves indiscreetly described as too weak and intimidated to offer in public what support they provide in private for Camp David. The prime minister of Israel found two of his Cairo confidants airing their suggestion to speed up the return of the rest of occupied Sinai. But all that can be forgiven in view of the new ground broken on the PLO.

It was the Ford administration, you recall, that formally pledged to Israel in 1975 not to "recognize or negotiate with" the PLO so long as it neither recognizes Israel's right to exist nor accepts U.N. resolutions 242 and 338. At Camp David, President Carter personally added a quiet pledge not even to talk with the PLO. These were regarded at the time as commitments given to Israel to secure its consent to risks it was incurring in dealing with Egypt.

Now, however, it is evident the two presidents feel the context has changed. Agreeing on the legitimacy and importance of the Palestinian issue, as well as on the vitality of the American commitment to Israeli security, they believe that issue must be resolved. To this end, they think it would be useful "at some point" (Ford) for the United States to approach the PLO. Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter do not want the United States to rush into an instant embrace. On the contrary, they urge the West Bank "mayors" (Carter) and "PLO" (Ford) to work with whatever results come out of Israeli-Egyptians talks on Palestinian autonomy. They insist that Washington not deal with the PLO until it accepts "some responsible preconditions . . . and some negotiations as to (its) attitude vis-Ma-vis Israel" (Ford), and until some "mechanism"--perhaps simultaneous recognition-- is found to satisfy the earlier conditions on American recognition (Carter). Neither president spells out the details of a Palestinian solution; Mr. Carter rules out a "state."

We find the Ford-Carter position on playing the United States' Palestinian card correct, moderate and responsible. It recognizes that the prime requirement in the Mideast peace process is not to keep out all the Palestinians represented by the PLO but to distinguish the moderates from the radicals and terrorists and to bring them in. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have shown an honorable and realistic way for the United States at once to keep its word and to adapt to change. They have widened the political room open to Ronald Reagan, if he would but use it.