It's widely agreed in respect to South Africa that the government ought to talk with the African National Congress, the outlawed black liberation movement. A group of leading private citizens -- businessmen and editors -- has just met ANC leaders in Zambia. In Israel, meanwhile, the government, far from countenancing however scratchily a reconnaissance mission to the Palestine Liberation Organization, is promoting legislation to keep Israel's tiny "peace movement" from continuing its occasional chats with the PLO.

Debaters can find differences between the two situations, but the connecting link seems to me more important. Neither South Africans nor Israelis can hope to resolve their dispute with their respective foes without finding a way to sit down with them. It is a bit odd to find the supposedly benighted South Africans out in front of the ostensibly progressive Israelis in this regard, but there you are.

A formal diplomatic effort is now under way to locate Palestinians who could be tucked into a delegation of Jordanians that would meet first with the United States and then, if all went well, with Israel. The effort is laboring under the familiar weights of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The Israelis insist on Palestinian "moderates" without conspicuous ties to the "terrorist" PLO. The question then becomes whether the Palestinians who meet the Israeli test represent anyone worth talking to.

In the South African case, those whites -- establishment figures, not peaceniks -- who have just met with the ANC in Zambia did so because they realized that the black "leaders" chosen by the apartheid system spoke for no one in particular and that if whites wanted a black interlocutor, it would have to be the real ANC: blacks chosen by blacks.

In 1976 the Israelis had some good potential interlocutors on the West Bank in the person of the mayors elected in what the then-Israeli government -- a Labor government -- hailed as the freest Arab election ever. But the Israelis harassed these mayors, expelled some, and let ripen an atmosphere in which others were maimed by Jewish terrorists. One of the Palestinians whom the Jordanians nominate now to the joint delegation, and whom the Israelis reject, is an expelled mayor of that class of 1976. They are rejecting a man who passed a democratic test which they administered to him themselves.

It is quite true that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shies from direct talks as from straight words, and toys with terror. But it is also true that he is showing himself now to be no less ready than his Israeli adversaries, even than Shimon Peres, to step out without advance guarantees on the uncertain path of negotiations.

Peres is an experienced political-billias player who is in delicate circumstances at home. One can see the old fox positioning Israel so as to make sure that if the bottom drops entirely out of the current diplomacy, Israel will be only minimally blamed. And if he does not find a way to push most of the onus upon Jordan's King Hussein, he will still have the cushion of Israel's overwhelming political support in the United States. Given Hussein's and Arafat's hesitations, this is an attractive course for Israel.

Except that it leaves Israel in the dismal conditions that are producing -- in the whole Kahane phenomenon, for instance -- precisely the deadly damage to Israel's civic virtue and morale that the worriers have long predicted. This and the country's continuing exposure to bombs and possible new wars. A mature Israeli government can take no comfort -- only temporary relief -- in exploiting the easy frailties of Israel's adversaries in order to avoid the risks of negotiation.

Six yeago, on a sweet August afternoon in Jerusalem, I had a mellow hour with then-prime minister Menachem Begin. I said to him I had always understood Zionism to be the requirement for Jews to become the masters of their own destiny, and yet Israel, unable to reach peace with its neighbors, was becoming ever more dependent on others, especially on the United States. He took the question slowly and sighed and said, well, Israel was building up its exports.

Yes, Peres is a good man trying hard. Yes, Hussein and Arafat are frustrating characters. But that corrosive dependence grows: It is what makes Israelis fear, for instance, that the United States might get out ahead of them and squeeze them in the diplomacy going on now. Surely the answer is for the Israelis to reach out themselves to those, in the PLO, who are their necessary interlocutor.

Reasonable people differ on whether a settlement would then be within reach: I happen to be an optimist. Reasonable people cannot differ, it seems to me, on the advantages to Israel of taking its future into its own hands.