Israel's dismissal of the elected Palestinian mayors of the towns of Nablus and Ramallah is the latest move in the Begin government's escalating plan to smash the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
To Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his hard-line colleagues, this is the necessary next step toward what appears to be their eventual goal: annexing the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians and Arab governments alike recognize the gauntlet the Israelis have thrown down by firing the two mayors. The action increases the possibility of an eventual renewal of hostilities between Israel and the PLO - in southern Lebanon - and on a scale bigger than before. A US-negotiated cease-fire has been in effect there since last summer.
Mayors Bassam Shaka of Nablus and Karim Khalaf of Ramallah are two of the most popular elected officials on the entire West Bank. Both were injured in car-bomb attacks two years ago, which only enhanced their standing. Responsibility for the attacks has never been established, but Palestinians believe the mayors were victims of Israeli extremists. While not proven PLO members themselves, the two mayors always insisted that the PLO spoke for the West Bank.
The firing of the mayors is a provocative response to the West Bank demonstrations of the past week. These, in turn, were in protest against earlier anti-PLO moves by the Israeli government, including the firing of another West Bank mayor.
The latest firings are a signal from Mr. Begin that:
* His government will not be deterred from its hard-line course by local or international protests - by local violence, by US representations, or by United Nations resolutions.
* The Israeli authorities are prepared to make the course on which they have embarked a final showdown, or fight-to-the-finish, with the PLO.
This raises in turn the question of whether such a showdown can be contained within the area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If the Israelis cannot quickly crush the Palestinian protest movement within the occupied territories, will Mr. Begin feel obliged to strike militarily at the PLO bases in southern Lebanon? Or even at PLO headquarters in Beirut as he did once before?
Up to now the Israeli government has insisted it will not launch any attack into Lebanon unless it is provoked. But a March 25 grenade attack that killed an Israeli sergeant in the Gaza Strip could be interpreted as just such a provocation. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Beirut-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO member group.
The crisis on the West Bank has arisen now because of a mutual awareness by Israelis and Palestinians alike that Israel's Camp David-demanded, final withdrawal from Sinai, due April 25, will move Palestine to the top of the agenda in the search for a Mideast settlement.
Egypt interprets the reference in the Camp David accords to ''full autonomy'' for the Palestinians as keeping the door open for self-determination and a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Israel, ever since signing the accords, has maneuvered to gain acceptance for an interpretation of ''full autonomy'' that would keep the door open to Israeli annexation.
Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, Eliahu Ben Elissar, now chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Israeli Parliament and a confidant of Mr. Begin, told the Jerusalem Post earlier this month that he expected withdrawal from Sinai to be followed by pressure on Israel on the question of West Bank autonomy.
''It won't be at all pleasant,'' Mr. Ben Elissar said, ''but we shall have to dig in our heels. . . . We cannot give way because we cannot usher in a Palestinian state according to the Egyptian interpretation of autonomy. Once Egypt sees we stand fast, it will have the choice of either considering Israel's terms or doing nothing - and so allowing the status quo in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to continue. . . .
''We can live with the status quo. . . . Whatever unrest there is from time to time is greatly exaggerated. . . . It is entirely artificial.''
At time of writing, a week of West Bank and Gaza turmoil had cost the lives of six Arabs and one Israeli.