Maverick Israeli journalist Uri Avneri, who has met top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization over the past two weeks, says Yasser Arafat is unequivocally ready to recognize Israel if Israel recognizes the PLO.
Such a PLO move toward moderation, if true, could heighten the concern of Israeli leaders who believe previous United States reluctance to recognize the PLO is slipping. A senior Israeli figure told a closed session of a key parliamentary committee July 21 that although the American position had not yet changed, there ''had been a serious erosion'' in the US attitude.
The PLO is angling for US recognition in return for leaving Beirut. The visit of the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers to Washington was aimed in part at encouraging the Americans to negotiate with the PLO.
The US is bound by a 1975 understanding with Israel not to open direct contact with the PLO before the PLO recognizes Israel's right to exist and United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. But, on July 21 a senior aide to the PLO chairman said that senior PLO leader Khalid Al-Hassan, traveling with the two foreign ministers but not allowed to attend their official meetings, brought with him a message to the White House proposing mutual recognition of the PLO and Israel.
The White House says no message has been received.
Israel, which rejects the concept of a separate Palestinian homeland, is adamantly opposed to negotiating with the PLO under any circumstances. This is an opposition the US will clearly take into account.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said last week, ''There is nothing in the world that can force us to negotiate with an organization of killers. Therefore, whatever the positions that the PLO claims to hold, Israel will not negotiate with them under any circumstances.''
For the present, Israeli public sentiment is likely to back the government. The PLO's image, already black here as a result of past terrorist attacks both in and outside Israel against civilians, has taken a further beating during this war. Every media or politician's reference to PLO members is preceded by the word ''terrorist,'' with no distinction made for PLO members who worked in its civilian bureaucracy, schools, or clinics.
The papers are full of tales of alleged PLO atrocities against Lebanese civilians, with little mention of the many horrible acts perpetrated over the past several years by other armed Lebanese and Syrian factions.
Mr. Avneri, a former member of parliament and part of the tiny but active Israel Council for Israel-Palestine Peace, insists the PLO has finally decided to recognize Israel. Mr. Avneri became the first Israeli journalist to interview Yasser Arafat when he crossed secretly into west Beirut in early July. He said that Mr. Hassan told him in a New York interview on July 17 that the PLO would stop political terrorism the moment political negotiations start between Israel and the PLO.
The Israel Council, a Zionist group that supports a Palestine state alongside Israel, has been scheduling meetings between members and PLO doves since 1974. Attacked frequently by the government (Avneri has been threatened with prosecution for his Arafat interview), the council has been embarrassed by the PLO's tendency to follow one dovish statement with a later hawkish one.
According to Mr. Avneri, the PLO launched a serious peace initiative in January 1982 guided by Issam Sartawi, a Europe-based PLO dove and Arafat confidant. The initiative aimed to produce a peace formula that would enable the US to deal directly with the PLO.
Mr. Sartawi, said Mr. Avneri, met with Tunisian President Bourguiba, who sent his prime minister to see then Secretary of State Alexander Haig in late April 1982. Avneri insists Mr. Haig was personally a party to the negotiation. He claims the Tunisian officialbrought back word that if the PLO unequivocally recognized Israel's right to exist, the US would consider this satisfactory.
The statement was supposed to be delivered on June 14 by Mr. Sartawi in Paris , then reaffirmed by the PLO in Beirut. But Israel invaded Beirut on June 6.