It is one thing to sign a treaty giving up land taken in war. It is another to give it up -- and begin planning for the future. Hence there were moments of concern when Israel and Egypt became embroiled in a last-minute test of wills just as Israel was preparing for the final pullout from Sinai. But the important thing is that the territorial return is taking place as scheduled.
Israelis are understandably anxious as they pull back from long-held territory and reduce the boundaries of their extremely small country. In the minds of many, possession of land spells security. But Prime Minister Menachem Begin did not undertake this historic gamble with Egypt only to see it fail. He knows the value of peace to Israel in military and diplomatic terms and he is going forward. Now that Egypt has given assurances of its continuing support for the Camp David peace process, the Israeli Cabinet has approved the final withdrawal. The farming settlements in northern Sinai have been evacuated, and the removal of die-hard Israeli settlers from Yamit has begun.
It cannot be easy for Israelis to strong-arm Israelis and to demolish homes built by intrepid Jewish pioneers. But Mr. Begin has rightly chosen the path of peacemaker. Indeed, considering the depth of Israeli anxieties, and the number of wars fought over this patch of desert wilderness, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty stands as a milestone of accomplishment.
The next challenge will be to solidify that peace -- and to extend it to Israel's eastern and northern borders as well. This will take
patience, perseverence, and above all political will on all sides. Israel is concerned about Egypt's moves to repair its relations with the Arab world and its support for the Palestinian cause. Egypt's presentation at a nonaligned conference in Kuwait of a ''peace plan'' that seemed to include establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and dismantling of Israeli settlements there has been especially disturbing to the Israelis.
Yet Israel has not helped its own position by the policies pursued since the signing of the Camp David accords. The unrelenting Jewish settlement of the West Bank, the ouster of elected Palestinian mayors and effort to impose an Israeli civilian administration there, the de facto annexation of Golan Heights -- these have inevitably fed Arab fears that Israel is expansionist and is determined to hang on to the remaining occupied Arab lands. The growing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in these territories give warning of the underlying conflicts to be overcome. Israelis were doubtless genuinely anguished over the attack at the Dome of the Rock by a recent Jewish emigre from the United States. But such isolated incidents can only take place in the context of failure to come to grips with the Palestinian issue and of growing Arab frustration.
To Menachem Begin will belong the world's genuine applause when the last Israelis leave Sinai and a new chapter of relations with Egypt is begun. But to protect even this achievement will require going farther down the road of peace. What will be Mr. Begin's vision then?