All eyes are on President Carter's forthcoming summit efforts to salvage his Mideast policies. The United States presidential electorate is watching. America's European and Arab allies are watching. Egypt is watching. The Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, still boycotting an autonomy process only they can activate, are watching, too.
But for all his April summitry President Carter is going to be hard put even to get started on the basic Palestinian issues that were supposed to be nearly solved by now. And even going that far, senior diplomats suggest, could prove too much for a deeply suspicious Israel . . . and too little for a despondent and impatient Egypt.
There has been a little forward movement in the latest negotiating round here in Egypt this past week. Ranking American negotiators, doing spadework for the Carter summits with the Egyptian and Israeli leaders, told The Christian Science Monitor they had come much closer to success than publicly indicated in their bid for a two-month freeze on Israeli settlements.
Some progress also was reported on another key snag in the 10-month-old ministerial autonomy talks -- Israel's tendency to cite all-embracing "security concerns" to ward off pressure for even minor concessions. That issue, it was learned, pushed the latest autonomy negotiations March 27 to the brink of crisis. "We were at a point that could have made things very hard for us in the future," confided a US negotiator.
Diplomats said chief US negotiator Sol Linowitz had defused the situation by winning Israeli agreement to take the issue back to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with the implied understanding it would at least be broken into manageable parts.
The problem for President Carter, officials from all delegations made clear, is that there still has been no indication or commitment that Mr. Begin will agree to this -- much less to a settlement freeze. And the May 26 target date for concluding the autonomy talks is coming on apace.
West Bank Palestinians stress privately that a temporary freeze, the most that US negotiators think Mr. Begin might be persuaded to accept, would not be enough to tempt them into the autonomy process. The Palestinians assert that Mr. Begin agreed to a similar freeze at the September 1978 Camp David summit, only to step up West Bank settlement since early 1979.
But to get anywhere in his summitry, President Carter must somehow defer or isolate the conflict between "full" Palestinian autonomy and Israel's vision of "security" that so far has snagged substantive progress. It is a conflict engraved in the careful contradictions of the Camp David accords.
"The Israeli military government and its civilian administration," says the agreement for the West Bank and Gaza, "will be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been freely elected . . . to replace the existing government."
That seems clear enough. The Israelis get out. Self-governing Palestinians step in. But a sentence later, that's not so sure:
"These new arrangements should give due consideration . . . to the legitimate security concerns of the parties involved," the accord says. And in a clear indication that even "full" autonomy has limits, negotiations are envisaged on precise "powers and responsibilities of the self-governing authority."
At present the Israeli military exerts ultimate control in the occupied territories. It directs local services. It also curbs political activity, sometimes detaining activists or refusing them permission to travel abroad.
"If they don't want to talk to us [about autonomy]," a military government official remarked recently to one reporter, "then why should we let them talk to someone else?"
The military administration also signs land closures or confiscations if needed for Israeli settlements, and it says who can or cannot drill for water.
Egypt, pointing to Camp David, says the Palestinians must fully "replace" the military regime. As the accord stipulated, some Israeli troops would leave. The rest would redeploy "into strategic security locations."
Israel, also within the letter of Camp David, says its own "legitimate security concerns" make all this unacceptable. Israeli troops would redeploy but must be free to unredeploy to quell unrest or detain suspected anti-Israeli agitators. Settlements must be allowed to continue. Israel must retain ultimate control of water and public land, and a wide range of other functions.
Anything less, Israeli officials suggest, could activate their greatest security fear of all -- creation of a Palestinian state.