The US-mediated Palestine autonomy talks have marked their greatest progress to date -- greater than was acknowledged in a public communique Feb. 1. But President Carter will have to convene another Middle East summit conference if the negotiators hope to meet a May target date for final agreement.
This was the assessment of ranking conference delegates following release of the less explicit communique, which noted principally that Egyptian and Israeli negotiators had "reached . . . tentative understanding . . . on a number of [ undisclosed] issues."
A major gap remains between Israeli and Egyptian readings of "Palestinian autonomy." But it is not quite so great as the latest public appraisal by the Egyptian side suggests, a senior US delegate maintained. And for the first time , the main negotiating parties seem to be chipping away at the differences, rather than circling them.
With Washington preoccupied over events in Afghanistan and Iran, one American official noted that "almost no one [among US officials] is particularly excited about the idea of another summit.
"But in our heart of hearts, I think we realize this has become virtually inevitable."
One reason, he and other delegates at the hotel conference site noted, is that both Israel and Egypt realize that moves toward an overall Arab-Israeli peace are central to an American bid to fashion at least a loose Middle East alliance against Soviet "expansionism" in the region.
In Middle East negotiating tradition, both Israel and Egypt now seem sure to demand a political, military, and/or financial price for an autonomy accord, an American diplomat commented privately.
Israel, he suggested, will want assurances that the United States will not deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Egypt probably will seek to reinforce its widened strategic role in the region.
Yet the talks in Herzliya, a seaside community north of Tel Aviv, made progress, if not as much as the American mediators would have wished.
Chief American negotiator Sol Linowitz, participating in his first plenary negotiating session since taking over from former US envoy Robert Strauss, "came in at full speed," one US diplomat commented.
"He wanted the Egyptians and Israelis to announce publicly at least a tentative agreement on a wide range of autonomy issues. . . . That, he did not get."
He did get two important things, senior conference delegates said:
* A clear Israeli determination to try to meet the late May target date for agreement in the eight-month-old talks. Some diplomats earlier had suggested privately that Israel was dragging its feet, fearing pressure for concessions to the Palestinians.
* A clear Egyptian acceptance of the fact that any final accord will stop short of a public endorsement of full-scale self-determination. Israeli negotiators have broken down envisaged "powers and responsibilities" for eventual Palestinian self-rule into three categories: those to be exercised by the Palestinians; those to be shared with Israel; and those to be retained as "residual" powers of the Jewish state.
"The Egyptians now clearly acknowledge that self-rule will not apply to everything," confided an American diplomat.