Washington — Time is casting the Palestine problem in a new shape after 35 years. Few Americans recognize the painful choices the Palestinian problem of the 1980s could pose if the present course is unchanged.
Three fundamental questions project a picture of a new Palestinian problem in which the Palestinians' rights are widely acknowledged but their fulfillment in Palestine is foreclosed by Israeli actions or Palestinian indecision.
First: What is the Israeli-Palestinian problem?
Before 1948, the Palestinian problem was clearly defined: How could the rising number of Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine and the Palestinian Arabs already there live at peace, given their claims to the same land west of the Jordan River? It was a problem of two peoples, each with its own identity, seeking to determine their own futures in a land which each claimed.
After 1948, when the Jewish population of Palestine declared Israel an independent state, the Palestine problem became the Arab-Israeli conflict - a contest of national power between the state of Israel and the Arab states.
Arab states rejected the 1947 plan to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs. They refused to accept Israel and attacked it. Neither Israel nor the Arab states recognized separate national rights for the Palestinians. Arab governments played the Arab role in Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs ended up submerged in the Jewish state, in refugee camps, or in other states - mostly as second-class citizens or as refugees.
By the late 1960s, however, the Palestinian Arabs had begun to assert their own national identity, and the definition of the problem began to shift again. At the 1974 Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco, Arab governments recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the ''sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.''
In 1975, the Ford administration acknowledged that ''final resolution of the problem arising from the partition of Palestine, the establishment of the state of Israel, and Arab opposition to those events will not be possible until agreement is reached defining a just and permanent status for the Arab peoples who consider themselves Palestinians. . . .''
Still there is disagreement. Are the Palestinians ''Arabs'' whose future can be absorbed in settlement of the state-to-state conflict? Or does a conflict remain between two peoples - Israelis and Palestinians - with distinct identities and claims in the same land?
On first glance, there appears to be more readiness than in the early 1970s, even in Israel, to recognize that the Palestinians are a people with identity and political claims. The words of the 1978 Camp David framework are clear: ''The resolution from the negotiations must also recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.''
But today many give lip service to that statement while foreclosing full recognition of Palestinian identity and a fair settlement in Palestine.
How parties really define the problem shows in their proposals for implementing Palestinian rights. The question is as fresh as each new Israeli building in the West Bank and the Begin government's view that autonomy under Israeli control should be the Palestinians' permanent status. It is as fresh as President Reagan's Sept. 1 initiative calling for Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza ''in association with Jordan.'' It is as fresh as the Palestinian leader's recent statement in Algiers: ''By adding to it (the Reagan plan) just one word, things could change completely. That one word is 'self-determination.' ''
At Camp David, we agreed to negotiate the final status of the West Bank and Gaza and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the conflict is accurately defined as a conflict between two peoples, it is difficult to visualize a fair negotiation if one party to the negotiation is treated as a second-class participant and if one possible outcome of the negotiation is ruled out.
That leads to our second question: What are the possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem?
In the 1940s, two approaches to the Palestine problem were considered. One envisioned a single state including both Jews and Arabs with full individual civil and human rights. In November 1947 tensions between Jews and Arabs made a single-state solution unworkable. So the United States joined in approving a second proposal - to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a separate body centered on the holy city of Jerusalem.
Even after Israel occupied all the land west of the Jordan River in 1967, the formula for peace recorded in Security Council Resolution 242 was that Israel would withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 in return for peace, secure borders, and recognition. The assumption was still that peace required sharing the land separately.
In 1977, Menachem Begin's election as prime minister of Israel brought to power a coalition substantially committed to Israeli control of all the area west of the Jordan River. Israel speeded land expropriation and built Israeli settlements and housing projects to establish a permanent Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza.
For the first time a one-state arrangement became a realistic possibility. That would produce a new Palestine problem in which no Arab identity would find separate political self-expression in Palestine.
There is, however, no agreement in Israel over the future shape of the state. Significant voices there still argue strongly that a one-state solution adding 1 .7 million Arabs would create a 40 percent Arab minority and dilute the Jewish character of the state if they are incorporated with full political rights and would corrode Jewish tradition if they are simply controlled.
Some of those who advocate a solution reflecting separate identities hold up the vision of a peace which could bring Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Christian, and Muslim together in relationships that would provide a model for mankind. How can such a peace be built until all parties feel the same measure of recognition?
Lack of agreement among the Palestinians about whether or how to coexist with Israel prevents their moving decisively to negotiate peace.
Those trying to start negotiations must concentrate on persuading the parties that negotiation can produce a solution that would reflect sensitivity to both sides' identities and attachment to the land. That sensitivity is not demonstrated in a one-state approach or in a position that subordinates one party's identity.
This leads to the third question: How can the parties be persuaded that a negotiated settlement could be better than the present situation?
There is no question that military power changed the environment for negotiation in 1967 and 1973. But many doubt we can afford another Arab arms buildup, another war, or the introduction of nuclear weapons.
There is also no question that a strategy of using time to ''create facts'' on the ground has changed the environment for negotiation. In fact, it has virtually created a new Palestine problem in which:
* Israel would foreclose a compromise settlement in Palestine by controlling all the land west of the Jordan River, thereby diluting the Jewish state and committing itself to another generation of conflict.
* Jordan would become the battleground for resolving the Palestine problem as Israel ''encourages'' Palestinians to create the Palestinian state in Jordan.
* The Palestinian community, having forfeited the chance to negotiate for a state in Palestine, would face a choice between establishing a state in Jordan and living as ethnic minorities in other nations with no hope but an armed struggle to change moderate governments in the Middle East.
* The US would face excruciating choices: What would be the US commitment to an Israel dedicated to territorial objectives that make another generation of conflict inevitable or to an irredentist Palestinian state in Jordan? The US has long committed itself to the security of an Israel seeking a just compromise with its neighbors. We have not faced what the US position would be toward an Israel and a Jordan whose territorial objectives the US does not support. US policy of pursuing a just peace has been designed for three decades to avoid being forced to choose between Israel and other critical interests.
The powerful question is whether that new Palestine problem would reflect a vision of the future we want to live with. Think about it. Does any leader want to be responsible for committing the next generation to live with that problem?
The weight of that question is the only leverage commensurate with the issues at stake - the future of peoples. Leadership and leverage lie in holding up alternative visions of the future - and the rock-hard consequences of each.
President Sadat took no bags of dollars and no advanced aircraft on his historic journey to Jerusalem. His leverage was a vision - let there be no more war.
The job now is a task for political leaders - not only for diplomats. The real issues are not aid levels, F-16s, and negotiating formulas. The real issues involve strengthening political forces that support compromise, increasing confidence that peace can be negotiated, convincing peoples that their identities are recognized.
King Hussein with Palestinian and other Arab leaders must convince Israelis who still want a negotiated peace that they accept Israel and will respect its integrity if Israel will reciprocate. They still have the option of launching a peace offensive to win by negotiating what they cannot win by fighting.
Israel's leaders must convince Jordan and the Palestinians that Israel intends to negotiate a solution which reflects their separate identities. They could hold up a vision of peoples at peace by halting building and settlement in the West Bank until a secure relationship between Jews and Arabs is negotiated.
The President of the US - with his skill as a communicator - must rally support for a just peace. He could hold up the vision of a fair settlement that recognizes the noblest aspirations of the Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab peoples and provides dignity and security for each. He could demonstrate the difference between US cooperation with those who seek peace and the limits in our relationships with those who perpetuate conflict.
In the 1970s, the US helped change the course of history through long, slogging negotiations that brought peace within peoples' grasp. Making peace can be one of the strongest levers of power if presidents, kings, prime ministers, and chairmen wield it boldly. It can even be good politics.