President Carter's repudiation of a US-supported United Nations vote which offended Israel is likely to leave him relatively unscathed in domestic politics but badly damaged among friends overseas.
This was the initial assessment of a number of foreign policy specialists in Washington following the President's startling announcement that because of a communications mistake the United States had wrongly voted March 1 for a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements. A Carter statement, issued March 4, left the widespread impression that the President had not only been part of a communications foul-up but had also caved in to political pressure from Israel.
According to the late evening statements issued by the White House, the President's main problem was with references in the UN resolution to the holy city of Jerusalem. Mr. Carter said that he had approved a US vote for the resolution only on the understanding that all references to Jerusalem be deleted. He said that the failure to communicate this clearly to UN Ambassador Donald McHenry resulted in the vote in favor of the resolution, rather than in an abstention.
Since Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was responsible for communicating with Mr. McHenry, it was apparently to Mr. Vance that the President was assigning responsibility for the communications mistake. An administration official said that prior to the vote Mr. Carter and Mr. Vance had discussed the issue by telephone. A State Department spokesman said Mr. Vance accepted responsibility for the communications failure.
An official said the President's main objection to one draft of the UN resolution was that it appeared to lump Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem together with the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the US favors an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gasa, its position on East Jerusalem has always been more ambiguous.
In his statement, President Carter reiterated the standard US position that Jerusalem should be undivided, with its ultimate status to be determined in negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement.
A US official recalled that the 1978 summit meetings at Camp David of President Carter, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reached a deadlock at one point over the highly emotional issue of Jerusalem. The official also noted that President Carter must have had an eye on the Israeli Cabinet, which was to meet March 4, only a matter of hours after he issued his statement from the White House. There was some fear in Washington that should President Carter not repudiate the UN resolution the Isrealis might decide to withdraw from the talks over Palestinian autonomy that they have conducted with Egypt within the Camp David framework.
President Carter's own foreign policy advisers were apparently split over how to proceed in the UN vote. They were said to have spent several days "agonizing" over the issue. An administration official said that at one point the President's special Middle East negotiator, Sol Linowitz, "weighed in" against any vote that would condemn Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza on the grounds that it would have a negative effect on the autonomy talks.
Un Ambassador McHenry was reported to have favored a resolution condemning the settlements. The President was, in the end, apparently prepared to go ahead with such resolution, even though he objected to its call for the dismantling of the settlements.
Sen. Edward Kennedy had criticized the US vote in favor of the UN resolution as had a number of American Jewish leaders.
Foreign policy specialists outside the government feared that the President's repudiation of the UN resolution would create an impression overseas, particularly in the Middle East and Western Europe, of incompetence and unsteadiness on the part of Mr. Carter.
According to one such specialist, the President's action might also fail to mollify Israel, because in reality the US vote in favor of the UN resolution was not that far from the spirit of Carter administrtion policy on the Middle East.