AT this time of the year the religious calendar draws the attention of many of the world's peoples to Jerusalem. The holy city, on the green ridge of hills which fall away into the desert plain eastward to the Jordan River, has been at once the symbol of aspirations for peace and security and the site of conflict and tension. The dividing line between the West Bank territories and Israel runs through the city -- a line obscured by today's Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The status of the city, it is generally acknowledged, will likely be the last item settled in any Israeli-Palestinian accord. We continue to think that the primary impetus for peace must come from within the region itself. The moderate Arab nations, now principally Jordan and Egypt, must continue to secure their flank with their Arab neighbors. Iraq's humbling by its war with Iran, in its way, could help. So could the efforts later this month by special United States Middle East envoy Richard Murphy to improve relations with Syria. Jordan's King Hussein needs to bolster his resolve. It would help if some indigenous Palestinian leadership, not beholden to the Palestine Liberation Organization record, could emerge. And so forth. At some point, the impasse between Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist and Israel's acknowledgment of Palestinian territorial and human rights must be broken.
The region seems to need to be moved by some general consent to peace.
There are practical arguments for the United States, the one outside party all agree must be involved in a settlement, to actively promote one. The Camp David peace negotiations involving President Carter, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, remain a moment of which Americans are proud. Partly because of this, President Carter still is thought to have done more for world peace than either Presidents Ford or Reagan, a new survey shows. Camp David was equally popular among liberals and conservatives, men and women, college graduates and military veterans, according to a New York Times poll.
There is, in this, a message to the Reagan administration about the potential political rewards in taking Middle East peacemaking risks.
There is a message, too, for the Democratic Party, lost in its own wilderness of self-doubt. The Democrats, in search of ``new ideas,'' could do worse than to revive the Carter administration's emphasis on human rights abroad as well as at home. The Reagan emphasis on projecting US strength abroad and on exporting entrepreneurism leaves part of the foreign policy job undone. Active affirmation of political and other rights abroad is at least as popular an American policy as the flexing of economic and arms muscle.
On the ground in the West Bank, Israel's hold on territory has grown tighter. Some 52 percent of the land in the occupied West Bank is now under direct or indirect Israeli government control, according to a new study by the West Bank Data Base Project, headed by Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Mr. Benvenisti's conclusions from this and a previous study, that Israel's control of the territories has grown so complete as to preclude a return of land to Arab sovereignty, is disputed by others. Return of what land for peace, and under what degree of control, would have to be determined by negotiations. Nonetheless, Mr. Benvenisti's research confirms what is apparent to the eye in the occupied territories: By expropriation for road building, by requisition for military purposes, by identifying as ``state land'' parcels that had not been registered or cultivated, by public planning, by declaring areas as nature reserves, and by crop restrictions, Israel's grasp on the territories has gone well beyond the building of settlements.
As Israel showed in the Sinai after the Camp David accords, it can raze the physical evidence of its settlements. Still, the longer a peace agreement waits, the more demanding such a request becomes.
All of these political or physical factors in the Middle East equation could give way before a general consensus that it is time for agreement. While public leaders have their work to do, so do citizens everywhere in preparing thought intelligently, prayerfully, for peace.