Jewish voters trooped to the polls in New York this past Tuesday as they had in Florida two weeks before to vote against President Carter, whom many of them think has been insufficiently considerate of Israel. They voted for Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has consistently taken a pro-Israel political stance.
At the same time President Sadat of Egypt was playing the amiable and welcoming host in Cairo to the deposed Shah of Iran. The offer of sanctuary to the Shah was no doubt intended as a favor to President Carter. It underlined a salient fact about the diplomacy of the Middle East: that President Sadat is doing everything he possibly can to please Mr. Carter, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is resisting Mr. Carter's wishes and putting all the pressure he can on him through Israel-sympathizing voters in the US.
The contrasting treatment of President Carter (kindness and consideration from Mr. Sadat vs. maximum pressure through Jewish voters from Mr. Begin) also underlines the rising tension in the Middle East as the target date approaches for what President Carter has hoped would be a crowning achievement of the Camp David accords -- an agreement on autonomy for the Arabs of the Israeli-occupied territories.
At Camp David it was provided that there should be negotiations looking toward Palestinian autonomy. Substantial progress would be achieved, it was hoped by May 26 of this year. There have been cursory exchanges of largely irreconcilable positions by Israel and Egypt, but nothing that resembles serious negotiation and virtually no progress.
President Sadat expects that President Carter will require of Israel at the least a form of autonomy which can progress into political independence for the Arabs. The freeing of the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza from Israeli military rule is the very least Mr. Sadat can accept and still hope to survive as a respectable Arab. Were he to accept less he would be even more widely seen as the traitor to Islam that the more radical Arabs already accuse him of being.
But Mr. Begin of Israel has consistently talked of autonomy for the Arabs as meaning local Arab management of Arab schools, sanitation, roads, markets, and such -- but still under Israeli military control and Israeli sovereignty. Israel would continue to control "public lands" and water distribution. The Begin concept as exposed so far would amount, in effect, to Israeli annexation of the occupied territories with continuing subordination of the Arabs to Israeli rule.
The whole of Islam joins Mr. Sadat in expecting Mr. Carter to provide by May 26 some evidence that Mr. Begin has been budged from his stand on the occupied territories. So do the allies in Western Europe.
Mr. Sadat has warned that "a new situation will exist" unless real progress can be reported by May 26. Indications are that in this "new situation" the European allies would extend added recognition to the PLO and call for a new beginning in the form, probably, of a reconvened Geneva conference with the Soviets present.
Which kind of pressure will have more influence on President Carter in Washington, the helpfulness of Mr. Sadat or the votes cast in the primaries against President Carter?
More rides on the outcome than the fate of the Arabs of the occupied countries. How long could Mr. Sadat survive in Egypt in the absence of real progress toward liberation of the occupied Arabs? What happens to the respective influences of Moscow and Washington throughout Islam?
Washington still hopes someday to improve its relations with the countries of Islam as a means of protecting its own access to Middle East oil and also as a means of containing Soviet influence along the southern frontier of the Soviet Union. There is no serious prospect of progress in that direction unless and until the Palestinian Arabs are liberated from direct Israeli military rule.
In that sense, Moscow has a decided advantage over the US in the competition for influence in Islam. Moscow has pursued a solidly pro-Arab and anti-Israel policy ever since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Even the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has not washed out that advantage -- as Mr. Carter discovered when he tried to enlist Pakistan in an anti-Soviet program.
The Jewish community in the Soviet Union is the third largest of such communities; the largest (about 6 million) being in the US, and the second largest (3 million) being in Israel. But the Jewish community of 2.7 million in the Soviet Union has no influence whatever on the Soviet government; whereas the American Jewish community has been accustomed from the beginning of the story of Israel to use its influence to serve Israel's purposes in Washington.
In 1948 President Truman's political advisers urged him to support the cause of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine and to recognize Israel the moment it came into being. One factor in this advice was the voting in the presidential elections of that year. US recognition of Israel was announced at the White House on May 14, 1948, precisely 11 minutes after the declaration had been read in Tel Aviv.
In the present political campaign in the United States every presidential candidate in both parties has declared his total support for Israel. But President Carter, while making his position ambiguous by conflicting deeds and statements, also has attempted to apply an "evenhanded" policy as between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
President Sadat expects some evidence of "Evenhandedness" from Mr. Carter by May 26. Can an American President actually be evenhanded between Israel and the Arabs during a presidential election year, especially with the Jewish voters making their disapproval known in the primaries? If they vote against Mr. Carter in the primaries for the sake of Israel, there is little reason to expect them to change in November -- particularly since leading Republican candidate Ronald Reagan's position on the Middle East is as impeccably pro-Israel as is Senator Kennedy's.
The only balancing factor in the American political spectrum is that Mr. Carter is more dependent on the black vote than are his challengers. He might offend portions of the black community were he to appear to surrender to Mr. Begin. He aroused some black disapproval when he let Andrew Young resign after talking to the PLO observer in New York. Ambassador Donald F. McHenry, who cast the vote in the UN that so offended the pro-Israel lobby, is a black. He is still on the State Department payroll.
The net of it is that the decisive struggle has begun over the meaning of autonomy for the Arabs of the occupied territories. Who will be stronger -- Mr. Begin or Mr. Carter?