President Carter acted none too soon in inviting prime Minister Begin and President Sadat to Washington again. Recent events in the Middle East had seemed to eclipse the urgency of the search for a solution to the Palestinian problem.
That search was due to begin after the summit at Camp David but never got underway because of basic differences between Egypt and Israel as to the nature of the solution to be sought. Both parties to the peace talks therefore preferred to delay the confrontation they knew lay ahead of them, when the concept of Palestinian autonomy as formulated in the Camp David accords was to be discussed in earnest.
All along it had been known that Mr. Begin, whose original proposal for Palestinian autonomy was rejected at Camp David, would attempt to read into the accords the very concept he proposed originally. According to this concept, autonomy is a status allowing a non-national minority the right to assert its cultural or ethnic uniqueness in a way which is totally devoid of any political significance. It follows that according to his plan the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be treated as a group of individuals entitled to Arabic education, under Israeli supervision, and to a degree of administrative autonomy in running municipal affairs so long as no Israeli interests were involved.
The source of powers allowed to the "administrative council" to be set up under this plan would be the military government as at present defined. This would ensure that, for the duration of the five-year transition period provided by the Camp David accords, the Palestinian population in the occupied territories would have no way of preparing for anything other than becoming the inhabitants of Israel, once the final status of these territories was to be decided.
By contrast, the Egyptian concept, which derives from the Camp David formula, is that autonomy is an interim phase leading to the exercise of the right of self-determination, which is undoubtedly one of the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinian people recognized at Camp David. No amount of verbal acrobatics can bridge the gap between these two mutually exclusive concepts of autonomy.
When the timetable for the implementation of the Camp David accords was determined, President Carter certainly was aware that the Palestinian problem would face him in this manner in the year he would be campaigning for re-election. It would be too unkind to him to assume that he had not realized all along that he would have to support the Egyptian position on this issue rather than the Israeli one. But he could not possibly have foreseen the Iranian and Afghan crises which he now faces and which put the autonomy problem in a context so completely different from the one expected.
The Arab reaction to the historical initiative of Sadat was completely negative. As this opposition crystallized, it became clear that the most objectionalbe element in Sadat's new policy towards Israel, as seen by most of the Arab governments, was not the willingness to make peace with Israel. Rather it was the indication the Arabs believed they could discern of Sadat attempting to make a separate peace with Israel, letting the other Arab parties to the conflict fend for themselves as best they could.
Most particularly the suspicion that Sadat was ready to abandon the Palestinian problem made it impossible even for moderate Arab politicians to support Egypt's new policy. The declaration of the Arab summit in Baghdad, late in 1978, made it clear that peace with Israel had become the common goal of "the Arab nation," but that, before such peace could be achieved, Israel had to allow the Palestinians to have a state of their own in the Palestinian territories formerly occupied by Egypt and Jordan.
It was hard then to envision the dangerous situation which might develop from such repudiation of Egypt by the rest of the Arab countries. But, as the crisis of the Middle East developed in Iran adn Afghanistan, it became clear that the situation stood in the way of any attempt to consolidate a meaningful opposition against further Soviet encroachments on the Persian Gulf countries. The absence of Egypt from the Islamic conference in Islamabad demonstrated the weakness of the whole region at a time of serious crisis.
This weakness is not dissimilr to the one seen in the 1950s when, because of Egypt's opposiiton to the alliance of the Islamic nations of the Middle East, the whole concept of the "northern tier" collapsed. It mattered little that Iraq, Iran and Pakistan willingly joined the alliance, because without Egypt it could not stop the Soviets from penetrating the Middle East. Now Iraq and Iran cannot be counted on to participate in the joint effort to align the Middle East against a future Soviet advance, and Egypt cannot be integrated into such an Alignment because of its unacceptable policy towards Israel -- unacceptable, as it turns out, also to the Islamic world.
The United States is now confronted not only with the task of mediating between Israel and Egypt, whose concepts of Palestinian autonomy are so far apart, but also with the task of finding a way to bolster its new efforts to consolidate a reliable opposition to Soviet encroachments. The two tasks are in fact one, aiming to provide the Middle East with sufficient stability to guarantee its immunity from upheavals and disruptions. Such stability is essential for the security of all the nations living in that region, and Israel is no exception.
It is one of those typically Middle Eastern puzzles that Israel, which likes to think of itself as a vital strategic asset of the US, should be the source of the present weakness of the US in its attempts to put together a dependable alignment against the Soviets. The vacuity of Mr. Begin's security arguments has now become mro glaring than ever before.By insisting on retaining the West Bank and Gaza Strip he creates a situation which deprives Israel of peace with its Arab neighbors, and, by trying to force Egypt to accept his solution for the Palestinian problem, he deprives the Middle East of the means to resist Soviet designs.
Unless the US can bring itself to resovle the present deadlock in the autonomy talks between Israel and Egypt, it should be prepared to see its present efforts to secure stability in the Middle East come to naught.