PRIME Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to Israel could not of itself generate much movement toward ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza territories. In the short term, the Israelis might consider her visit a success. Her chief proposal was impractical. She suggested that municipal elections be held soon, so that a new, non-Palestine Liberation Organization group of leaders could be in place should the prospect of negotiating a settlement emerge. The Israelis vetoed it, recalling that the last elections in 1976 led to PLO activists taking office: This was an acknowledgment that the PLO's influence persists, whatever the frustrations -- in Amman, London, and Washington, as well as in the occupied territories -- over its leadership.
Mrs. Thatcher also seemed to come down on the side of the Israeli identification of the PLO as terrorists. She insisted the PLO renounce terrorism and endorse United Nations Resolution 242, which recognizes Israel's right to exist. But Thatcher also met with Palestinian leaders petitioning for Palestinian self-determination and an international Middle East peace conference that would include the Soviet Union.
But for the longer term, Thatcher had another message: ``It is not in Israel's long-term interest to be an occupying power.''
The truth of this is not hard to see. Increasingly, many in Israel aspire to a modern life style, with the prosperity and freedom to move that their peers in other Western nations enjoy. The economic and emotional burden of perpetual war readiness, and the moral and political dilemmas of being an occupying power, drag against these aspirations. Demographics count for something, too: Last year, for the first time, emigration exceeded immigration in labor-short Israel.
For the moment, the visit of Thatcher appears to have given the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres another foreign policy success. Earlier, he had seen Jordan's King Hussein come around and break relations with PLO's Yasser Arafat. The Labor government is preoccupied now with giving up the prime minister's office shortly to the Likud bloc, with which it entered a power-sharing agreement after the last election.
A week ago Mr. Peres had sent a special envoy, Ezer Weizman, to Washington to prod Secretary of State George Shultz into visiting the Middle East in hopes of reviving the peace process. The administration, more taken up with terrorism, said to wait until times looked better.
So it looks like a long dry summer for the peace process in the Middle East. Still, the more arid the prospects for peace, the greater the political reward for whoever ultimately brings it to pass.