The time to move for peace in the Middle East is now. Otherwise a unique opportunity to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute may be irretrievably lost.
This was the view expressed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Butros Butros Ghali in a recent interview here.
Much depends on the United States making its influence and authority felt on Israel, he said. But Egypt - the key country in the Middle East, with links to the nonaligned world, to the Arab nations, to the US, to Israel - will throw its full weight behind diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the Palestinian problem through peaceful means.
Foreign Minister Butros Ghali outlined Egypt's position as follows:
* At its recent ''summit'' meeting in Fez, the Arab world (including the Palestine Liberation Organization) achieved its unity again, and for the first time adopted a realistic, moderate approach. This momentum should not be lost, Mr. Butros Ghali said. Otherwise, the cycle of violence, of extremisms feeding on each other, of polarization that can only prolong the stalemate, would start again.
* Several plans have been put forward recently: the ''Fez summit plan,'' the ''Reagan plan,'' the ''Franco-Egyptian plan.'' Each represents a step forward, an opening. But what is needed now is not so much arguing about precise formulas as setting up a mechanism whereby such ideas could be negotiated and ultimately implemented. Whatever the mechanism selected, Jordanians and Palestinians must be brought in and have a say with regard to the future of the West Bank and of Gaza.
The departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon is a prerequisite for renewed talks on the Palestinian problem. It will be difficult for Arabs to negotiate while Israel occupies part of an Arab country. The recent massacres in Beirut will make negotiations more difficult. This is why an assertive US role is needed, such as ''Eisenhower's in 1956'' - when the American President acted firmly to obtain Israeli, British, and French withdrawal from their joint Sinai-Suez campaign.
According to the Egyptian foreign minister, the Palestinian problem is at the heart of the Middle East conflict and ''the Palestinians should have the right eventually to create their own independent state.''
Mr. Butros Ghali sees Israel's incursion into Lebanon as a major diversionary move. While the world seeks to resolve a succession of Lebanese crises, the Palestinian problem is placed on the back burner. This central issue cannot, however, be evaded, he says. The longer it is ignored, the more explosive it will become. Ultimately it may endanger world peace.
The Reagan plan (autonomy for the West Bank in the framework of an Israel-Jordan association), and the Fez summit plan (self-determination for the Palestinians and the right for all countries in the region to exist), may both be considered to show new flexibility. Perhaps neither goes far enough.
The Franco-Egpytian plan could get a diplomatic move started, in Mr. Butros Ghali's view. Essentially it calls for simultaneous mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO. But, according to Butros Ghali, Egypt and France are not pressing now for their plan's acceptance because they don't want to hinder US diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring Lebanon's independence and territorial integrity and at ''building upon Camp David to move beyond Camp David,'' toward a just and lasting solution of the Palestinian problem.
''Only the US, a superpower, can effectively influence the situation in the area,'' says Butros Ghali. This does not mean, however, that other peace initiatives - by Western Europe, by Eastern Europe, by the United Nations - ought to be discouraged. ''It is essential that the public's attention remain focused on the crisis and that diplomatic movement not be allowed to lose momentum,'' he says.
Beyond its immediate concern with the Middle East, Egypt's foreign policy's foundations are:
* A committed, vigorous nonalignment. Egypt was one of the nonaligned movement's founding fathers and views it as being ''mainstream,'' equidistant from both power blocs.
* Consolidation of its relations with the rest of the Arab world. Egypt by its population represents half of the Arab world. Its geopolitical weight, its location, its history, make it the center of gravity, in time and space, of the Arab world.
* Close and warm relations with the US. ''Egypt's relations with the United States go beyond the Middle Eastern crisis.''
* Egypt remains committed to the Camp David agreements and to its peace with Israel, the foreign minister stated. Israel's behavior in Lebanon does not, however, help transform the existing cold peace between the two countries into a warm peace. Egypt remains committed to reconciliation. ''This is not a tactical move but a strategic position,'' says Butros Ghali.