AS the Middle East peace conference moves from its historic but ceremonial phase in Madrid to difficult bilateral negotiations in Washington, the Bush administration will achieve concrete results only if it heeds the lesson of past Middle East peace efforts and seeks modest but important interim agreements, rather than succumbing to the temptation to achieve an unattainable comprehensive solution.The desert sands of the Middle East are strewn with the carcasses of well-meaning but flawed "comprehensive" United States peace plans following the six-day war of 1967, when Israel took control of the occupied territories. Each peace effort was sprung on Israel without consultation, each was premised on the withdrawal of Israel from most of the territories it acquired in defending itself, and each failed to make any progress. They asked too much from Israel's standpoint and too little from the Arabs' pe rspective. The Rogers plan of 1969, proposed by President Nixon's Secretary of State William Rogers, would have required Israel to withdraw within three months, would have allowed Arab refugees to be repatriated to Israel under an annual quota, and would have required binding commitments to peace by Egypt and the Arab nations. In 1977, Jimmy Carter, after having talked of the "legitimate rights of the Palestinians" and called for a "Palestinian homeland," issued a joint invitation with the Soviet Union to comprehen sively address all of the issues in the region. In 1982, Ronald Reagan weighed in with a plan that stressed autonomy for the Palestinians but also mentioned an exchange of territory for peace. In a similar vein, George Bush's address to a joint session of Congress following the Gulf war premised his call for peace on the concept of land for peace. The differences between the parties are too profound, the enmities are too ancient, Arab hatred of Israel is too deep, and, as a result, Israel's legitimate concern about losing the security advantage the territories afford is too grave for the divides to be bridged by neat, comprehensive formulas based on territorial withdrawals. By trying to achieve too much too fast, these American plans achieved nothing. Progress has been made in the region only when the US government adopted a less ambitious course. Twice in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, following a "step by step" approach, grasped this elemental point and was able to negotiate disengagement agreements with Israel and Egypt in the Sinai, and Israel and Syria in the Golan, with partial Israeli withdrawals. The genius of President Carter's Camp David initiative was not only his determination and intellectual fortitude in helping bridge the wide gulf between Egypt and Israel; rather, it was his recognition that a partial solution to the Middle East's problems, through a bilateral agreement between Egypt and Israel, together with self-rule for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, was desirable, even though other issues were left unaddressed. We are now at a watershed in the Middle East. A historic window of opportunity has opened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its capacity to embolden the rejectionist Arab nations; with the Gulf war, which established the US as the sole superpower in the region; and with the decision by the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza - exhausted by their own intifadah uprising, weakened by backing Saddam Hussein, and disenchanted by their leadership in exile - to settle for the autonomy they rejected a fter Camp David. The opportunity must not be lost. In the final analysis there will have to be a territorial compromise between Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel's Arab neighbors. But if this is pressed at the outset, it will torpedo any chances for eventual success. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his governing Likud Party are disciples of Vladimir Jabotinsky, an early 20th-century Zionist leader who broke with the mainstream Zionist majority and adhered to the notion that a Jewish state should include what was promised in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, but at the very least all of the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. To trade territory at this stage runs counter to Likud orthodoxy and would end Mr. Shamir's coalition government, since the right-wing and religious parties are committed to expand Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, until the peaceful intentions of Israel's Arab antagonists can be demonstrated concretely, there is no consensus among the Israeli public to trade tangible territory for intangible Arab promises. While a significant plurality of Israelis would favor returning some of the territory for credible guarantees of security, few would agree now to return any part of Jerusalem, much of the Golan Heights, or most of the West Bank. But this does not mean progress is impossible. Rather, the Bush administration should seek a series of interim agreements between each of the parties, which neither, at this stage, requires Shamir to face a land-for-peace prescription nor insists that the Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians sign full-blown peace treaties. The centerpiece of such an interim policy should be the autonomy or self-government concept embodied in the Camp David accords, but rejected in 1979 and 1980 by the Palestinians and never implemented by the Israelis. The Bush administration has wisely decided to limit the initial phase of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to a five-year period of Palestinian self-rule, only after which the final status of the territories, claimed by two competing national movements, would be decided. This will permit a confidence-building period during which the Palestinians will have the burden of demonstrating they can control their own extremists and live peacefully with Israel. It will begin the disengagement of Israeli forces from population centers and make a later territorial settlement more likely, if the Israeli public is convinced the Palestinians can peacefully coexist with Israel. A Likud government under Menachim Begin has already agreed to autonomy at Camp David and proposed an autonomy plan in January 1982, which included the areas of self-governance and election procedures for a Palestinian Administrative Council and pledged that after the establishment of the self-governing authority, the Israeli "military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn, a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces will take place, and there will be a redeployment of the remaining Israel i forces into specified security locations, in full conformity with the Camp David agreement." This is a precedent for the Shamir government. Months before Madrid, Shamir asked the man he has entrusted to negotiate with the joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubenstein, to quietly coordinate an autonomy plan. There remain terribly difficult issues ahead in defining the terms of autonomy, including the extent to which it encompasses control over water rights, land, and security, as well as the extent to which Palestinians from East Jerusalem may participate in self-government in the territories and the elections t o the self-governing council. At some point before an autonomy plan can be finalized, Israel will have to confront some limit on its settlement activity during the autonomy phase, and the Palestinians will have to commit to interim measures such as calling for an end to the intifadah. But these issues are resolvable with good will and US mediation. To achieve an interim arrangement with the Palestinians, Syria will have to be prevented from sabotaging any agreement. There is no similar framework in place for the Syrian-Israeli negotiations as for the Palestinian-Israeli talks, nor has there been much work done inside or outside the government on a symmetrical interim agreement that does not ask from Syria and Israel more than each can accept. Syria has three-quarters of its standing Army, some nine divisions, deployed between Damascus and Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. Interim measures could include a thinning of Syrian forces in return for a reduction in the size of Israel defense-force units now within striking distance of Damascus. This could be coupled later with a partial pullback of Israeli forces closer to the Golan, if Syria releases the trapped remnants of the Syrian Jewish community and issues a non-belligerency pledge. But even if no interim arrangement with Syria is possible, the administration should muster a combination of American and Soviet pressure, Egyptian persuasion, and Saudi money to obtain Syrian acquiescence in a Palestinian autonomy agreement. When difficulties arise in the hard bargaining ahead, the Bush administration must not fall into the trap of pushing for more than is achievable - or it will come away with nothing. The chances for real progress are too great now to repeat the mistakes of the past.