President Carter is taking a new leap into Middle East peacemaking in an attempt to break what appears to be a serious deadlock over the Palestinian issue.
The White House announced March 19 that Mr. Carter will meet next month in the United States separately with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat to take stock of negotiations on the issue and explore new means of moving forward.
Most independent analysts doubt that the President can succeed in such a difficult endeavor. But Mr. Carter apparently is determined, at the least, to impart new momentum to the negotiations over Palestinian "autonomy" which were undertaken within the framework of last year's Camp David accords.
Those agreements set May 26, 1980, as a target date for agreement on a self-governing body for the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Carter initiative comes on the heels of an administration foul-up which severely damaged the President's credibility, not only with the Israelis but also with friendly Arab nations of the Middle East. The United States was in the awkward position of disavowing a vote at the United Nations which it cast in favor of a resolution condemning new Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories.
The decision to do an about-face on the vote was described by some administration officials as an unmitigated disaster in terms of its impact on several key Arab nations, including America's biggest oil supplier, Saudi Arabia. The Arabs attributed the reversal entirely to pressure from Israel.
According to one source close to Saudi thinking, Saudi Arabian leaders have for some months been accusing the US of not taking the Palestinian question seriously enough and not recognizing what an explosive issue it is with many Arabs. The Saudi Foreign Minister was reported to have told his British counterpart recently that "movement" on the Palestinian issue is essential to stability in the Middle East.
The aspects of this issue which currently divide the Egyptians and Israelis are many, but they revolve essentially around the question of how much power the Palestinians' self-governing body would possess. Under the Israeli concept of "autonomy," Israel's army would retain ultimate control over security on the West Bank. Israeli negotiators have failed to reach agreement with the Egyptians on the key questions of occupied east Jerusalem and control over West Bank and Gaza land and water.
Another key difficulty has been the new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The Americans have insisted that there was supposed to be a freeze on such settlements. The Israelis have continued to build them. In February the US criticized an Israeli Cabinet decision to support, in principle, settlement by Jews in the Arab-populated West Bank City of Hebron. The State Department said that movement of Jews into Hebron would damage the confidence of all the parties, and that of the Palestinians in particular, in the autonomy negotiations.
Hermann Eilts, the former US ambassador to Egypt, wrote in a recent issue of Worldview magazine, "President Sadat, not to mention President Carter, it cannot be emphasized enough, signed the Camp David accords believing that a settlements freeze had been agreed upon."
William B. Quandt, who was chief Middle East expert on the National Security Council staff during the Camp David negotiations, told the Monitor that the differences between the Egyptians and Israelis are so great that he sees little possibility substantive issues could be resolved by President Carter in his meetings with Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat.