BY accepting United Nations Resolution 242 as a basis for Mideast peace, the Palestine Liberation Organization has taken a welcome step toward moderation. Its legislative arm, the Palestine National Council, now endorses a ``two state'' solution to the Arab-Israeli impasse. The PNC, meeting in Algiers, has eased what had been a rock-bound determination not to recognize Israel. The UN resolution specifies the right of every state in the region, including (by implication) Israel, to live within secure boundaries.
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat spent all-night sessions cajoling the delegates into acquiescing to the new position. In this effort, he received help from the Soviets, who have ties to some of the most hard-line PLO factions. The final vote endorsing Mr. Arafat's program was lopsided. Significantly, in the past the PLO has insisted on unanimity. This time, a majority ruled, allowing a more moderate stance to prevail.
Under the Palestinian proposal, UN Resolutions 242 and 338 (which implements 242) are to serve as a basis for an international peace conference, at which such thorny issues as the borders of a new Palestinian state would be resolved.
That proposed new state, already declared by the PNC, is, of course, a theoretical entity that collides with Israeli and US policy. No current leader in Israel is willing to entertain the possibility of a Palestinian state on its borders. Washington, likewise, doesn't favor such a state.
That's perhaps the major controversy embodied in the Palestinians' new stance. But there are others. Yitzhak Shamir, who will head the next Israeli government, has rejected the concept of an international conference on the Mideast. He hopes to revive the Camp David process, and may be inclined unilaterally to declare ``autonomy'' for the West Bank and Gaza - a step that would exclude all meaningful Palestinian participation. Mr. Shamir says Israel will never talk to the PLO, which he sees as quite simply a terrorist organization.
But as part of its policy forged in Algiers, the PLO professes to reject terrorism ``in all its forms.'' It leaves open, however, activities to resist occupying forces - a reference that will reinforce Israeli skepticism. It's up to the PLO to define its words by its acts.
The PLO's words have until now included its sternly phrased Palestine National Charter, a document that rejects Israel's right to exist. Does the current Palestinian position overtake the charter?
Arafat and his colleagues have gone further than many thought likely. They had to show Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that their uprising will have political consequences.
Even so, the PLO has not gone nearly as far as many others will demand. Washington may hold out for an unambiguous, clearly worded recognition of Israel, in addition to acceptance of Resolution 242.
But it would be a mistake to brush the Algiers platform aside as too little, too late. The PLO has nudged the door open to greater moderation in a region that needs it. It's hard now to see where that door may lead, but statesmen in Jerusalem and Washington should certainly venture to take a look and, if possible, push it open further.