Negotiations over autonomy for the occupied West Bank have been going on for more than two years. Hence it is improbable that an agreement will be concluded in a short three months - by the time Israel is to return to Egypt the last remaining portion of Sinai. That was the hope when the Camp David accords were signed. But it is well that the Reagan administration is trying to step up the negotiations as the April 25 deadline approaches - and to keep them alive even if no broad agreement is reached. It would be regrettable if the only Mideast peace process around these days was allowed to languish - however flawed might be the Camp David framework in which it is taking place.
To make any progress, however, the United States will have to get the participants back to the letter and spirit of the agreement framed so dramatically in 1978. The essential problem now is that Israel and Egypt are negotiating from totally divergent concepts of autonomy. Under the Camp David formula, the two agree to provide ''full autonomy'' to the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza during a five-year transitional period. Toward this end a ''self-governing authority'' is to be ''freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas to replace the existing military government.'' The accord acknowledges that any solution must ''recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.''
Translating these generalities into specifics has proven the Herculean challenge. Egypt interprets the ''self-governing authority'' as a large body with legislative, executive, and judicial powers as a way station to full Palestinian self-determination. Israel sees it as a smaller local administrative body that would run everyday affairs like health and education, in effect giving the Palestinians control over their everyday affairs but not over territory. Other points of contention include whether east Jerusalem, which was seized by Israel after the 1967 war, should vote in the elections for the authority and control of land and water resources.
These are wide gaps to bridge, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin's actions ever since the Camp David summit suggest that it will be difficult to change the Israeli posture without US determination to do so. Everything Israel does seems to support a long-range strategy of acquiring more and more territory at the expense of its Arab neighbors. Thus, Israel has been planting Jewish settlements in the West Bank at an increasing pace, to the point where today it controls one third of the land. It has declared disputed east Jerusalem its united and eternal capital. It has to all intents and purposes annexed the Golan Heights. Such moves have only confirmed Arab suspicions of Israeli expansionism and Arab disdain of the Camp David agreement.
The question is what Washington really thinks about all this. There has been some slapping of Israel's wrists, to be sure, indicating US displeasure with the way things have gone. But there is yet no discernable Mideast policy on how to achieve an Arab-Israeli settlement. While at the moment the administration does not wish to do anything to jeopardize Israel's withdrawal from the rest of Sinai , it ultimately has to face up to some basic questions. How does it interpret the Camp David formula for Palestinian self-government? What powers does it think a self-governing authority should have? What kind of interim arrangement does it believe would be forthcoming enough to entice Arabs into the negotiations? Is Camp David even a viable vehicle still worth pursuing?
It is to be hoped that Secretary of State Haig's recent foray into the Middle East signals a new focus on this problem. This was his first intensive exposure to autonomy issues and the outcome remains to be seen. But it is plain that, unless the US is prepared to weigh in with its own view of the Camp David accords - and to confront Israel and the Arabs with it - the chances for rejuvenating this particular peace negotiation are slim.