Unless President Carter can help to deal with the Israeli-Egyptian deadlock over Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Camp David formula for Middle East peace may be left to stagnate or disintegrate.
But considering the American Chief Executive's other preoccupations -- a showdown with the Soviet Union over Afghanistan, the plight of American hostages in Iran, and his own campaign for renomination and re-election -- it may be difficult if not inopportune for him to resume the role of supreme arbiter.
Israeli officials, notably Prime Minister Menachem Begin himself, seem eminently aware of Mr. Carter's other business. Their strategy, though, has been to submit a comprehensive proposal to the Egyptians -- with appeals to the United States to participate in the negotiations again as the only alternative if the proposal is turned down.
The Egyptians, meanwhile, rejected the Israeli "draft model" of a Palestinian self- governing authority in toto, without citing any of its elements as being worthy of consideration.
This has left the US with several interim options:
* The dispatch of the chief American autonomy negotiator, Ambassador Sol Linowitz, on a regional swing that will bring him to some of the more moderate Arab states, including Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, before arriving in Egypt and Israel.
* Encouragement of moderate figures on both sides of the autonomy dispute to look for prospective areas of agreement without necessarily waiting for the President's active participation.
The scheduled start of normalized relations between Egypt and Israel next week -- including telephone and mail links, direct airline flights, and commercial dealings -- could help mollify the influence of the hard-liners here and in Cairo. And the reappearance in Egypt this week of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Israel's most popular politician there, may also have a salutary effect.
Underlying the Israeli concept of autonomy, as sponsored by Prime Minister Begin, is a determination that is must not lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Another Begin argument, is that a Palestinian state would lead to a repeat of the Afghanistan crisis -- Soviet troops being "invited" to come to the aid of what he foresees as an inevitably pro-Soviet Palestinian state.
To back up his contention the Israel's autonomy model is eminently fair, Prime Minister Begin authorized release of its 26- page contents to the local news media.
It calls for the establishment of 11 departments, defined as "divisions" under a "self- governing authority" or administrative council whose members would be elected by West Bank and Gaza Strip residents.
The council's power and responsibilities would fall into three categories: those exercised unilaterally, those "shared" with Israel, and those to remain "residually" with Israel. Among the "residual" powers would be foreign affairs, defense, internal security, natural resources, and communications.
According to Israeli negotiators, the Egyptian delegation could not reconcile these proposals with its belief that the administrative council should be a legislative body and that it would assume all of the prerogatives now enjoyed by Israel's military government.