Three troubled weeks have passed since Mr. Reagan launched his initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Events since then, culminating in the gruesome massacre of Palestinian refugees, have underscored the urgency of moving ahead rapidly. Doing so depends on the commitment and skill of the President and Secretary Shultz.
No longer are the Arabs likely to be the main obstacle. Their Fez ''peace plan,'' in which the PLO joined, does not fully conform to the President's proposals; but unlike Begin's response, it has a number of positive aspects. It focuses on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and it implicitly offers Israeli security for withdrawal, as provided by UN resolution 242. True, their plan calls for an independent Palestinian state, rather than one federated with Jordan, as the President insisted, and reaffirms the PLO role as negotiator, but it can be seen as an opening position for negotiations. And King Hussein of Jordan praised the Reagan initiative as positive and constructive, and is now putting out feelers to the PLO to develop common ground.
Mr. Begin and his cabinet flatly rejected the Reagan proposals as a basis for negotiation. That was inevitable. They cut directly across his strategy for keeping the occupied territories as part of Eretz Israel. Begin and Sharon evidently hoped to wipe out the PLO by the invasion of Lebanon. And indeed, their purpose in moving into Beirut, after Gemayel's murder, and authorizing the Phalangists to enter the refugee camps was to purge or mop up remaining Palestinians.
Meanwhile, for five years the Begin regime has been absorbing the occupied territories piecemeal. It annexed Jerusalem and Golan, and it now holds 55 percent or more of the land of the West Bank and has been promoting settlements by large subsidies for land and housing. Already some 30,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements; the number of settlers is expected to expand to 100, 000 by 1985. And the local Palestinian inhabitants and their leaders are being repressed and harassed and are being pushed out of the West Bank at a steady rate. Begin clearly has no intention of complying with Resolution 242 or Camp David. For him negotiations are just a means of gaining time to continue the take-over and ultimately to legitimize Israeli control by spurious ''autonomy'' for the Arabs.
Thus time is of the essence for the success of Reagan's proposals. Undoubtedly the President and Shultz have been correct in initially stressing the positive benefits of peace for Israel in order to start a debate there. To have threatened pressure at this stage would have given Begin a basis for demogogic appeal - David against Goliath. But that will not be true indefinitely. The danger is that extended delay will further erode US credibility and allow Begin to foreclose a solution by his steady de facto annexation. Yet the anguish and revulsion over the Palestinian massacres may suddenly speed up the process of change in Israel, especially now that the complicity of the Begin Cabinet is confirmed. It may be that this brutal tragedy will jolt the Israelis into recognizing where the fanaticism of Begin and his colleagues is leading their country.
Somehow, the US must help in making clear that reality and the real choices now facing Israel. Begin's contempt for US interests and leaders has been nurtured by its weak protests to his provocations. But that arrogance rests on a profound misjudg-ment which could cost Israel dearly. The President and others have reiterated the firm US commitment to Israel's security. That is genuine and has been widely shared. But Israel should understand it is not immutable. The talk of Israel as an ally of the US is wholly misleading. Israel is an expensive dependent. It is a burden which has been damaging to US interests in the region.
Support for Israel is based on history and sentiment: on sympathy for the past sufferings of Israeli society. That sentiment is already eroding and will not survive if the US public comes to see Israel as committed to apartheid in the occupied territories and to domination of its neighbors. Support for such an Israel will have no appeal and will be too costly in terms of US interests in the Middle East. Under those conditions, the Israeli lobby would itself be deeply divided, but in any case would be overwhelmed by the opposition of many who have heretofore joined or acquiesced in the uncritical support for Israel.
In the interest of Israel and its future, its dedicated friends in this country should be making sure that the debate within Israel on the Palestinian issue takes full account of these risks in Begin's course. It is reassuring that some in Israel and here are attempting to do so.