THE bickering over time and place that preceded this week's resumption of Middle East peace talks in Washington was nothing new. Previous negotiations in 1973 and 1977 had similar preludes. For all the analysis of possible outcomes, these talks represent, after all, a step into the unknown.Israel's refusal to come to Washington last Wednesday, in accord with the US invitation, was intended to show that it wouldn't be forced to resume talks at the bidding of a third party. The Arabs got some publicity mileage out of the Israeli stubbornness, but both sides recognize they have little to gain from such skirmishes. Daunting as the prospect may seem, the time has come to get down to cases. Between Palestinians and Israelis, this means a discussion of autonomy. To Israel's government, that word denotes care-fully circumscribed self-rule within the context of continued Israeli control of the occupied territories. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir makes that clear with his repeated references to a biblical "land of Israel," which includes the West Bank. Palestinians see autonomy as an interim step toward full self-determination, including, eventually, a country of their own. Those positions could appear mutually exclusive. Yet there's substantial room for negotiation about the extent and nature of self-rule. The participants have to avoid letting maximal goals exclude the give and take at the heart of any fruitful negotiation. The US, while recognizing that the parties themselves have to make peace, may have to do considerable diplomatic repair work to keep the process going. The talks between Israel and the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, for all their potential confrontations, could prove easier to get moving than the Syria-Israel negotiations. Syria's hard line, though softened by the past year's events, allows no compromise on the Golan Heights. Israel is equally strident on its security interests there. But compromise on that and other issues is possible. All the parties have a lot more to lose than to gain if the talks sputter and fail.