THE Middle East peace talks opening here Dec. 10 have raised again the question of whether a comprehensive approach to solving the Arab-Israeli dispute, rather than a step-by-step one addressing a single geographical issue at a time, will work.The current United States initiative marks the first time a US administration has launched a complete approach to solving the Arab-Israeli dispute. This means that all the issues dividing Israel and the Arab states - Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and its occupation of Syrian and Lebanese lands - are being tackled simultaneously. In the past, as with the Camp David accords during the Carter administration, the US pursued solutions to a single component of the Arab-Israeli problem. During a recent visit to Washington, Israel's former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin raised doubts that a comprehensive approach could succeed. "The essence so far of the Madrid conference [in October] is to tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict in its entirety," Mr. Rabin told reporters at the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "So far, such attempts in the past led nowhere.... I hope there will be no delay because of difficulties of the Israeli-Syrian side." Both Israel and the Palestinians are seeking an agreement on a transitional period of self-government for the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If there is no progress in Israeli-Syrian talks, Rabin says, Syria could block progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and multilateral talks on regional issues. Syrian negotiators in Washington say they will not attend the multilateral talks on regional issues in Moscow next month if progress has not been made in their discussions with Israel. The other Arab parties - the Palestinians, Jordan, and Lebanon - have endorsed this position. "Success in one negotiation will prod success in another," says Robert Satloff, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But the key issue of what's going on is whether the Palestinians can withstand" Arab pressure. The step-by-step approach started with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Shortly after the October 1973 war, Dr. Kissinger won a disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel; then, in 1974, he brokered a similar agreement between Israel and Syria, disengaging forces on the Golan Heights. That agreement led to the 1975 accord between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai Peninsula. The culmination of the step-by-step approach was the 1977 Israeli-Egypt peace process. IN the mid-1970s US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko called for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. "That's what drove [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat up a wall," says Mr. Satloff. "He understood it would not lead to peace and so he derailed President Carter's attempt at comprehensiveness." That was the last American attempt at a simultaneous solution to the entire Arab-Israeli dispute. Now, other analysts maintain, the situation is too different from that of the 1970s to permit a step-by-step process. "I don't think step-by-step, country-by-country, separate negotiations could work," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and Asia. He says the issues are too intertwined to be separated; the Palestinians do not have the strength to go it alone. "The parties lack the self-confidence" of Sadat's Egypt, Mr. Murphy says. "If the Syrians found there was a threat of a separate set of negotiations as happened in 1974 and 1975, when Egypt moved ahead, they would obstruct those negotiations. Everybody should work for a set of parallel talks to move ahead at a faster rate." "The idea of step-by-step still makes sense in phasing" any particular geographical agreement, says Hermann Eilts, a Boston University professor and former US ambassador to Egypt. But "the Jordanians and Palestinians wouldn't agree to do things totally without the Syrians. One has got to move on all fronts now." The question remains at what point Syria would move to block Israeli-Palestinian talks if there is little progress between Israel and Syria. Arab negotiators say that the essence of an Arab foreign ministers' agreement prior to the Madrid conference, is that there should be no separate peace. The Palestinians, they say, would not implement a final settlement on West Bank sovereignty without a simultaneous Israeli-Syrian agreement on the Golan Heights. Arab negotiators say, however, that the Syrians will not obstruct the implementation of an interim autonomy agreement for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "I'm sure the Syrians understand that progress can be made on one front," says Marwan Mu'asher, spokesman of the Jordanian delegation. "But the final peace settlement should be comprehensive on all fronts." Israeli observers are more sanguine. "The Syrians will lay back and see," says an Israeli journalist. "If there's an interim agreement [between Israel and the Palestinians] and they don't like it, they will sabotage it."