Begin shrugs off mounting problems

When President Carter says "summit," much of Israel thinks "pressure" and trembles a bit. But at least one man here seems distinctly unruffled by the latest summons to Washington: Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Mr. Begin, Israeli officials say, is planning no policy change on the bedrock issues for his April visit to Washington. And what of the May 26 "target date" for the elusive accord on Palestinian autonomy? Mr. Begin is just a unflappable.

"Target date" means "target date," Mr. Begin says. To him May 26 is not a deadline, no matter what others, particularly the Egyptians, would like to think.

So why does this man seem so calm, so determined?

Intransigence, narrow-mindedness, and shortsightedness, are the stock replies from growing anti-Begin forces both within Israel and abroad. But political analysts here of various persuasions suggest a more nuanced explanation:

* First, Mr. Begin genuinely believes in Israel's right and duty to retain ultimate control over the occupied West Bank (autonomy or no autonomy). He feels unswervingly that the disputed holy city of Jerusalem must remain Israel's "eternal and undivided" capital.

This is not just rhetoric: Mr. Begin has devoted a lifetime -- as pre-state chief of the violent ultra-nationalist Irgun faction, later as a parliamentary gadfly, and now as prime minister -- to furthering these goals.

* While Mr. Begin's hang-tough approach could eventually topple his unsteady coalition government (opposition journalists already ask whether a man who answers international condemnation of settlements with further land grabs has "lost touch with reality"), it seems good domestic politics for the time being.

Perhaps Mr. Begin's most vulnerable spot is economic policy. But Mr. Begin, supporters argue, is at his best when resisting pressure on the Palestinian question. More importantly, Israel is at its most united (no matter how high prices go) when it perceives that someone, even its US ally, is trying to wring painful concessions.

* In any case, Israeli analysts suspect, the real pressure could come later rather than sooner -- perhaps in a further summit as the May target date approaches. For the time being, they argue, President Carter needs Israel (or, more specifically, the American Jewish vote in East Coast primaries) almost as much as Israel needs him.

Simcha Dinitz, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said openly March 20 what many were saying privately: "This is not the worst possible time [for a Carter-Begin summit]. At a time when the President is engaged in a political campaign he is . . . more inhibited from exercising full pressure on us".

The key question for President Carter is just how long all the above constraints will last. Surely not forever, is the implied answer from Mr. Dinitz, who suggests that Israel moves quickly to "take stock" of which issues are genuinely not negotiable, and which ones are.

Mr. Begin's heartfelt attachment to Jerusalem and to the West Bank (for him, biblical Judea and Samaria) seems immutable. But the political environment, both in Israel and the United States, is not.

On the home front, recent polls have indicated a thumping popular majority for the opposition. Antigovernment politicians have wasted no time in blaming Mr. Begin's "provocative" policies for West Europe's tilt toward the Arab world, and for Washington's retracted condemnation of Israeli settlements at the UN.

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