The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai peninsula on schedule is a notable success for American diplomacy.
There should have been a special and honorable role at the ceremonies for former United States President Jimmy Carter. His efforts at Camp David were decisive in shaping events toward this outcome.
But when one considers how long it took to reach a peace between Egypt and Israel and how much diplomatic effort went into that work - one can appreciate how much work lies ahead if the goal of Camp David is to be achieved.
That goal is a ''comprehensive'' settlement of differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It is intended to include ''full autonomy'' for the Arabs of the occupied territories. It looks toward the day when Israel will be an accepted and valued member of the Middle East community.
But it took three-and-a-half years for diplomacy to reach the events of April 25 when Israeli troops marched out of the Sinai peninsula and Egyptian troops took over.
And that last big push from Camp David in September of 1978 to this past week followed nearly 12 years of earlier efforts.
The peace process for the Middle East dates from the United Nations debate following the 1967 war. The diplomats there drafted a resolution at that time calling for recognition of Israel by the Arabs and withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territories in return.
From then down to Camp David there was a series of unsuccessful efforts to get a peace process going. Henry Kissinger made himself famous for his shuttle diplomacy in the process. Many another diplomat devoted valiant and patient efforts to the task. Decisive progress dates from Mr. Carter's determination at Camp David to get the peace process on a solid foundation by bringing Egypt and Israel together.
To complete the process there must also be a peace between Israel and its other Arab neighbors. They are Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. But peace with those neighboring Arab states requires a settlement with the fourth factor - the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO.
The PLO problem for Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon is different than it was for Egypt. Most Palestinian Arab refugees are in those countries. Only a negligible number are in Egypt. The refugees are in camps in the occupied territories, in Jordan, in Syria, and particularly in Lebanon where most of their military organization is based. But they are not found in Egypt in organized masses, only as a relatively few individuals.
Besides, while Egypt is an Arab country in language and religion, the bulk of its people are not ethnic Arabs. The Egyptians are a separate and distinct race. They were conquered by Arabs. There is Arab blood among them. But there is a difference. The people of the Nile are separated from the bulk of true Arabs by the Sinai desert.
The people of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are true Arabs. They are not separated from Palestine by any desert or other natural barrier. The Palestine refugees are among them and able to exercise substantial influence on their policies. Egypt could, just, make a separate peace with Israel. The others, even if they wished to do so, cannot make peace with Israel unless or until peace includes the Palestinian Arabs.
The heart of the problem is the future of the refugees, most of whom still live in camps and nourish there a deep resentment over their exclusion from their own homelands. The militant PLO is a surface manifestation of a deep sense of injustice rankling among more than a million refugees. What is to be done with or for them?
The original theory at the end of World War II was that Israel would have a homeland in Palestine but share it with the Arabs already there. The Balfour Declaration which opened the way for modern Jewish migration to Palestine proposed ''a national home for the Jewish people'' in Palestine. But it added that ''nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. . . .''
The Arabs are unlikely ever to come to terms with Israel except on a basis of sharing Palestine in equality. But equality for Arabs in Palestine would mean a pluralistic state. It would mean the end of Israel as it exists today, a state run by Jews for the primary benefit of Jews.
If President Reagan wants to see progress toward peace in the Middle East while he is in the White House he must now devote intensive thought to ways and means of reconciling a Jewish state with the yearning of the Arabs for equality in Palestine. The road ahead for peace in the Middle East is long and hard.