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Muddying the Mideast

In the aftermath of the Sadat assassination, it is encouraging to hear Israel and Egypt conspicuously talking about continuing the search for peace, including self-government for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Prime Minister Begin and President Muba-rak clearly want to convey a sense of continuity with respect to the Camp David accords. Whether these are in fact an adequate framework for the next step of Mideast peace is much in question these days. But, unless and until some other format emerges, it is better to keep talks going than not talk at all.

However, positive echoes of hope for a breakthrough in the negotiations risk being lost in a dubious view heard in Israel these days: namely, that the Palestinians should be willing to exercise their national aspirations in Jordan, which is ''a Palestinian state.'' Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir says the Palestinians ''already have their state, home, and country.'' Israel, he adds, does not care whether Jordan is ruled by King Hussein or PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

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Such pronouncements are troubling. This may be a convenient argument for Israel, but it grossly distorts the realities of the situation. The Arab-Israeli dispute is not over providing the Palestinian Arabs a state somewhere but over allowing them to decide their future on parcels of land from which they have been dispossessed and which currently are under Israeli occupation.

It might be helpful to recall history. The foundation for a state of Israel was laid by the British government in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 favoring establishment of ''a Jewish national home'' in Palestine, at the time a province in the Ottoman Empire. But in 1922, Britain, which then held a mandate over Palestine, unilaterally created the state of Transjordan out of two-thirds of Palestine. The Jewish national home was thus to be established in the area remaining from Jordan to the Mediterranean.

In 1947, when Britain was preparing to give up its mandate, this area contained 1.3 million Arabs and 700,000 Jews - with Palestinian Arabs owning 93 percent of the land and Jews only 7 percent. The United Nations partition plan that year divided the area into separate Arab and Jewish states, giving Jews 55 percent of the Palestine territory. The plan was never implemented, however, because the Arabs rejected it. After the United States and the Soviet Union recognized Israel in 1948, the armies of neighboring Arab countries invaded in an effort to support the Palestine Arabs and defeat the Israelis. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven by Israeli forces from their homes in both the Jewish and Arab zones.

By the time of the 1949 armistice Israel was left with a larger territory than it would have gained under the UN partition plan. Jordan, for its part, which was one of the invading armies, had control of the West Bank and the old city of Jerusalem - an ''annexation,'' however, which was never recognized by the United States or most other countries. In the 1967 war Israel made further territorial gains, seizing Gaza and Sinai and also Syria's Golan Heights and the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, including the old city.

No government has recognized these land acquisitions. UN Resolution 242 in fact calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories along with secure and recognized boundaries for Israel. The treaty with Egypt settles the case of Sinai, the last portion of which is to be given up by Israel in 1982 . But this leaves unresolved the issue of the West Bank and Gaza - the region from which so many Palestine Arabs fled and in which some 1.2 million Palestinians still live.

It may turn out that the ''Palestinian solution'' ultimately decided upon will be a linking of the West Bank and Jordan. That would have to be the result of negotiation. But what the Palestinian Arabs now legitimately seek is the right of self-determination within the areas which they have long lived in and which are now controlled by Israel: the West Bank and Gaza. Telling them they already have a Palestinian state merely deepens their suspicions that Israel has no intention of giving up this land. Such suspicions also are fed by Israel's aggressive settlement policy in the West Bank and by the fact that Israeli maps today designate the disputed areas as ''Judea,'' ''Samaria,'' and ''Gaza'' without any delineation of the 1967 frontier.

Failure to respond to the plight of the Palestinians has already resulted in many wars. We won't mention here the number of occasions the Arabs as well as the Israelis have missed an opportunity for peace. The urgent need on both sides today is not to lose another.

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