So far the Israelis have succeeded in controlling the price of admission to a renewed Middle East peace process and setting that price considerably above what King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat of the PLO have been willing to pay. Israel has had the evident support of the United States in this exercise in political inflation. So notwithstanding Hussein's words in Washington this week, the prospects of a serious negotiation remain slim.

Plainly, this is the way the Israelis want it. Hussein and, surely, Arafat are still in the stage of trying to pull rubbery words over the gap between their respective positions and Israel's, in order to mobilize American pressure on Israel. What with the split in the Israeli government and the weight of other issues, Israelis find it much easier to stay in the rut they know. Especially is this so when Arab frailty and American favor make it a relatively comfortable rut, one whose benefits the Israelis are pretty well assured for the foreseeable future.

Hussein's and Arafat's distance from Israeli terms for talks may leave Israel's future grim. Their acceptance of Israeli terms, however, would constitute for some Israelis something worse. It would force the country to make its hardest choice ever -- whether to keep the land acquired in 1967 or use it in a trade for an uncertain political process called peace. Specifically, it would force the Likud half of their government to stop evading the familiar U.N. resolution (242) whose past rejection by the PLO has been cited by Israelis to demonstrate the PLO's unworthiness as a negotiating partner: the annexation-minded Likud shies away from 242's proferred bargain of peace for withdrawal. The current consensus in Israel seems better adapted to living -- with every Arab country but Egypt -- in an indefinite state of war.

Others can urge and press, but only Israelis can finally decide whether to submit to the tremendous wrenching that a reach for peace would entail. I happen to think that Prime Minister Shimon Peres may have it in him to lead his country down that path. Israelis who want him to try tend to keep it to themselves so as not to embarrass him politically before his time, which may be not yet.

But if the day comes, let it be acknowledged that there exists a straightforward way to make use of it. Every Israeli, in his heart, knows what it is: to talk with the PLO. The organization is truly the bane of Israel's existence, but it is also the only political force that speaks for the Palestinians in their full diversity and disarray and that is in a position, perhaps, to deliver some substantial number of them to a settlement. Every Israeli knows, in his heart, that the choice of a people's spokesman is a self-defining sovereign act, an act of psychological and political necessity, one that ultimately cannot be denied.

Meir Merhav of the Jerusalem Post makes the case for talking with the PLO in a moving appeal just published by the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Speaking as a typically torn Israeli dove, he grants that the PLO is anti-Zionist at its core, devoted to terror and perhaps intent on trickery. Lots of Israelis stop right there. Merhav goes on: "But if we want peace, with whom shall we make it if not with our mortal enemies?" He concludes that "the PLO, detestable as it may appear to us, is the representative of the Palestinians and holds the power of veto over anything that any Arab state or any group of Palestinians might agree upon in an Arab-Israel settlement."

It would be amusing, if it were not so sad, to see Israelis and their American patrons dancing around the question of which Palestinians might yet serve in the joint Palestinian-Jordanian peace delegation that King Hussein has been trying to organize, first to talk with the United States and then to negotiate directly with Israel.

The Israelis cite the PLO's anti- Zionism and terror as Israel's reasons not to deal with people connected to the organization. They also cite, as the United States' additional reason, the American pledge of 1975 not to deal with the PLO unless it meets Israel's preconditions. A prudent person aware of its record of backing and filling has to doubt that the PLO can ever fit itself out for political action, notwithstanding the latest hints from Hussein.

But a prudent person aware of the debilitation of Israel's national life has to hope that the PLO can close the gap. The organization itself has the principal responsibility. Its friends and, even more, its enemies, first among them Israel, have the burden to share.