WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Can the government of Israel trade land for peace again -- with a little help from its American friends again? Will Yasser Arafat prove the reliable peace-partner to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Anwar Sadat was to Menachem Begin? Will Hafez el Assad keep his word and live in peace with Israel as Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak have lived -- not in friendship but in peace?
There is not much reason to think so. These principals seem not to have desired peace as Sadat did, nor sought it in the same way.
The chances may be slightly better between Mr. Arafat and Israel's Labor government. At least Mr. Arafat and his Israeli interlocutors met face to face, negotiated directly, and struck a deal with no pressures from other parties.
And both have already reaped rewards from the Oslo Agreement. Israel has achieved relatively normal relations with Jordan and Morocco and trade relations with several Arab peoples with whom it previously had none. The Palestine Liberation Organization has been given jurisdiction over Gaza and much of the West Bank. Both are now patrolled by Palestinian police operating largely autonomously.
In the eyes of many, the PLO has been transformed by the Oslo Agreement from a terrorist movement without territory to a territory ruled by its own ''legitimate'' leaders of whom not much has not been asked so far.
Mr. Arafat has not been required to renounce the PLO Charter that pledges the elimination of Israel -- though the PLO pledged at Oslo to do just that. The PLO has not been required to maintain order, control Hamas, enforce laws or provide security for all persons -- including Jews -- under its jurisdiction. But no one has proposed to abrogate the agreement.
Benefits to Mr. Arafat and the PLO include the granting of economic aid from Europe and the United States -- at least some of which would not have formerly been available. The $550 million requested by the Clinton administration in 1995 for the PLO is generous beyond belief for a leader with the record and the values of Mr. Arafat. Moreover, having lost his Soviet protector and supplier, Mr. Arafat needs peace more than ever before.
So does Mr. Assad, who has not been speaking much lately, as he did in the 1980s, of ''Greater Syria,'' or of ''Palestinian Syria.'' He has not lately been heard to claim ''Jesus Christ was a Syrian Jew.'' Or that ''Palestine is a Syrian issue.'' It is still not clear, however, that Mr. Assad understands how badly he needs peace.
If he did he would perhaps be less demanding in his negotiations with Israel, concerning which his vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, said recently, ''There is no agreement yet.'' And he added that there would be no agreement without full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There would be no agreement, he emphasized, without withdrawal of the last Israeli soldier from the last inch of Syrian soil. There would be no agreement without a full agreement on water as well as land.
And, as if all that were not enough, Syria has most recently requested -- or is it demanded? -- that the United States be present at talks between the Syrian and Israeli chiefs of staff so that the United States can guarantee the agreement.
Guarantee borders without historical validity? Borders which enhance the reach of an expansionist dictator who has already imposed a puppet government on one neighbor -- Lebanon, and repeatedly attacked the borders of another -- Israel?
It would be absurd for the United States to guarantee to Syria borders that are not rightly its own while it took no interest in the borders of Israel and Lebanon, both of which have been violated by Syria.
It is important that the U.S. government remember at this crucial stage in the development of the ''peace process'' that Syria remains a terrorist state -- whatever the U.S. State Department may recently have called it.
The Clinton administration's desire to be a peacemaker must not lead it to forget the fact that for decades Syria has served as the hiding place of the most terrible terrorist groups who hatched there the most terrible plots.
Governments such as Mr. Assad's lack legitimacy. Often they also lack longevity. Their vulnerability to violent political change and new extremist ideologies can be seen in Hamas' showing against the PLO.
The Camp David accords provide no analogy, no precedent. Egypt, before Camp David, was a state, a polity with a history. Anwar Sadat was a nationalist leader with a sense of history. Israel is and always has been a self-governing democracy that lives in a bad neighborhood. There is no precedent for the projected U.S. role in the projected deal.
I respect the rights of Israel's citizens and government to make their own decisions on the basis of their best judgment about their national interests. But Americans have the same right, and surely it is not in our best interest to risk money and/or men on Yasser Arafat's integrity or on Hafez el Assad's commitment to peace.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.