It is too much to think that the reemergence of Yasser Arafat, from the ashes of defeat in Tripoli into the embrace of President Mubarak in Cairo, itself represents hope for an early end either to Lebanon's factional strife or to the Palestinians' odyssey for a homeland. This is especially so when it strikes Israel and Mr. Arafat's PLO enemies as a betrayel.
Early 1984, from all appearances, will likely be a period of diplomatic base-building. As David D. Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, observes in a column opposite, ''Each positive step in the Middle East has been built on the rejections of the past, discarding labels and framing something new.''
Past policies, in rejection, become symbols of intransigence. Untangling the snarls of old grievances may again prove fruitless in the new year, unless new negotiations proceed unencumbered by old plans and formulas.
Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld right now should be stitching together the basic fabric of a fresh US policy to the Middle East. We do not know what he has been up to in his recent travels to Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Oman, Italy, France, Britain. He will be off on another round soon. Most analysts are hard put to see what policy base Mr. Rumsfeld has had to work from. Rumsfeld must determine what King Hussein of Jordan, the Saudis, Syrians, Israelis, and the PLO will need for them to join in some new framework for peace. Quiet effort to that end could entice the parties to participate.
One can be neither naive nor defeatist. How hard the task is was demonstrated in the Mubarak embrace of Arafat. The gesture was welcomed in Washington but deeply deplored in Israel, coming as it did just three weeks after Mr. Reagan had enlisted Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a new ''strategic cooperation'' pact.
Mr. Reagan has evidently promised Israel greater aid, possibly converting military credits into grants. But Egypt, a signer of the Camp David accord along with Israel, will apparently benefit only somewhat less well. Were these aid accommodations designed, in Israel's direction, to enlist Israeli cooperation in holding off Syria in Lebanon, and in Egypt's to encourage a base for moderate Arab-PLO cooperation on the Palestinian front? It's cumbersome, at best, to link such gestures of US support to contested policy objectives.
Mr. Arafat's fate as a PLO leader remains clouded. He had rejected the Camp David process and had split with Egypt over the 1979 peace treaty, which he condemned as a moderate sellout. Now he reappears at Mr. Mubarak's side. Washington evidently hopes to put something together on the ''moderate'' front with Mubarak and Jordan's Hussein. Egypt and Jordan have just lifted trade restrictions imposed by Jordan when Egypt signed the '79 pact with Israel.
Egypt itself has yet to repair its ties with the Arab League, which incorporates 21 Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Arab League will hold a summit at the end of March in Saudi Arabia. Egypt would like to work with the moderates within the league, but the moderates too are inhibited because of resentment over the reaffirmed US-Israeli bonds.
Working with Israel, too, could prove difficult as its new prime minister confronts philosophical and economic divisions at home. And then there are the US Marines in Lebanon . . . .
When Mr. Reagan took over the White House, nobody said it would be easy, least of all in the Middle East. But in the year ahead, such surprises as Arafat's reprieve suggest new combinations may be possible.