IN the Middle East the road to Israeli-Arab peace seems to be inversely related to the distance between the antagonists. From Jerusalem to Amman, Jordan, is a two-hour drive, but instead of traveling to Jerusalem, as Anwar Sadat did, King Hussein prefers taking the long road to Washington. No less bizarre, our State Department seems to favor such a circuitous route, where the probabilities of a breakdown are enormous. Although Hussein claims his itinerary has Arafat's full approval, the latter has yet to publicly accept United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 or to reject his organization's chartered determination to destroy Israel. Moreover, both of them have long, undistinguished records of double and triple talk, whereby they not only distrust each other's agreements, but so does every one else in the Middle East or elsewhere.
At the same time, Israel, with which peace is allegedly sought, is expected to remain silent at home, happy that Hussein is not calling upon it and that a projected international conference including the Soviet Union will somehow keep its interests in heart. Needless to say, Israel has repudiated such expectations.
Under such conditions, America's becoming a long-distance peace matchmaker can only prove futile -- and foolishly so. No agreement can be arranged by meeting with one of the disputing parties, which itself is divided politically and militarily, and then expect an international body, including the Soviet Union, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, to guarantee peace. Neither America nor Russia would accept such a process for itself.
Camp David came about only because Sadat and Menachem Begin dared to do the unpredictable, but necessary: agree to face-to-face peace discussions, wherein location was unessential to their intentions. They met in America only because they had jointly agreed to do so -- in spite of Soviet, Libyan, and Syrian opposition.
Lest one forget, unlike America and its allies in both world wars, Israel never demanded ``unconditional surrender'' as the sine qua non for ending hostilities. In all of its five major wars, it never sought total victory or land. It is not for Israel's want of desire for peace that it has not come about, but rather Arab refusal to make it on terms other than Israel's destruction.
If Hussein and the Palestine Liberation Organization really want peace, let them break the illusion that America can do for them what they themselves refuse to do, speak and act for peace as they have for war. By now, they and other Arab leaders should have learned that no American administration can dictate what Israel should do to protect itself -- or vice versa, just as America cannot force inter -- and intra -- Arab peace, whose past and present absence seems to be without end, in spite of contin uous affirmations of pan-Arab unity.
Perhaps there is a simpler explanation at work for going to Washington: to perpetuate the illusion that Jordan and the PLO want peace and Israel doesn't, and thereby undermine the strong public and congressional support Israel has. If so, it is a public-relations adventure bound to explode by the realities of Arab Middle East politics, wherein Israel is no threat to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the PLO, but other Arabs are. Such is central to all Arab requests to purchase more American advanced military equ ipment, and even Arafat's recent statement that the PLO has ``suffered many more losses from brotherly guns than from the Zionist enemy.''
Rather than going to Washington, Hussein should be heading for Jerusalem, while these Arab leaders remaining at home might well start making peace among themselves.
Philip Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.