In Arab capitals today the question is not: a homeland for the Palestinians, to be or not to be? All agree that such a homeland is what they want.
Instead the hottest topic for debate is: Which should come first, an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, or a confederation of Jordan and those Israeli-held territories?
But the debate may be academic anyway, since the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insists it will not give up any more of the land it captured in 1967.
But just in case some leeway is possible in the Israeli position - either with the current or a future Israeli government - Arab leaders are trying to devise a mutually agreed upon approach. If, for instance, the Reagan administration's initiative in the Middle East matures into genuine Arab-Israeli bargaining over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza, the Arabs need to be in agreement on at least these three points: (1) who does the talking, (2) how much flexibility can there be in the Arab (or Palestinian) position, (3) and what is to be the ''final status'' of the occupied territories?
There is, of course, much disagreement on Arab tactics, but given the divisiveness that has long characterized the Arab bloc, there is also a surprising amount of like-mindedness. The collective Arab strategy at this point can best be summarized as:
* No Arab state should usurp the lead role of the Palestine Liberation Organization in any negotiations. But the PLO may want to authorize someone else (Jordan's King Hussein, for instance) to act as its ''agent'' in possible talks with the United States and Israel.
* Most - but perhaps not all - of the West Bank and Gaza must be vacated by the Israelis.
* A Palestinian state must emerge, probably associating itself with Jordan for economic and military reasons.
The argument involving Washington, the PLO, the Arab bloc, and Israel is whether the creation of a Palestinian state would precede or follow ''association'' (perhaps confederation) with Jordan. Washington wants confederation first. Israel rejects the whole notion, but if it were at all toying with the idea, Israel would most likely choose confederation first. The PLO steadfastly calls for an independent state with ''self-determination.'' And most of the rest of the Arab bloc sees both sides of the question and is urging the PLO to take the best that it can get in the new Middle East situation.
Hashing out these matters is what the current flurry of comings and goings by Arab diplomats - especially by PLO chief Yasser Arafat - is all about. Since exiting Beirut in August, Mr. Arafat has crossed and recrossed the Arab world from Morocco to the Gulf, consulting heads of state. His current tour has taken him to the wealthy, politically moderate Gulf nations of Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. On Oct. 20 he held talks with Saudi King Fahd.
Arafat's missions are equally to secure proper arrangements for his organization to carry on in new host countries, to keep in touch with his far-flung cadres, and to determine how best to take advantage of President Reagan's call for the West Bank/Gaza ''association'' with Jordan. Having lived through many a Middle East crisis involving the PLO, Arafat knows that opportunities must not be lost. But he must be careful not to appear to his own followers as too compromising with Israel.
To try to convey this complex, subtle situation to President Reagan, meanwhile, a seven-member delegation of Arab leaders is on its way to Washington. This will be a group of moderates headed by Moroccan King Hassan II. A PLO representative will go to Washington, but because of US restrictions he will not meet the President or governmental officials. These Arab League delegates, appointed at last month's Arab summit conference in Fez, Morocco, are expected to encourage Reagan to coax and/or pressure Prime Minister Begin into more flexibility on the issue of the status of the occupied territories.
But these diplomatic forays are not expected to produce a breakthrough in the 15-year-old impasse over the occupied territories. Instead, they are necessary forerunners to the next big event on the Middle East calendar: the November meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC).
Exact timing of the PNC meeting is uncertain, as is its site. In fact, the choice of a site is one of the PLO's most nagging problems today, since the organization's personnel and resources are scattered throughout the Middle East.
The PNC is the equivalent of a parliament-in-exile and at this upcoming meeting the whole issue of a confederation with the Kingdom of Jordan will be thrashed out.
So far, official PLO policy on this matter (as gleaned from Palestinian publications and speeches by Arafat) is that the PLO is wary of trusting Arab leaders, such as Jordan's King Hussein, who in the past had wanted to annex the West Bank and create a ''United Arab Kingdom.'' But, as the official PLO magazine Falestine Al-Thawra says in its current issue, the PLO is not adverse to ''a formula for an understanding with Jordan in a way which serves the Palestinian cause.''