President Carter's latest talks with the leaders of Egypt and Israel appear to have left the gap as great as ever between the two Middle East countries on the key issues of Palestinian autonomy.
Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin ahs agreed to the holding of intensified talks with Egypt on the subject. But President Carter's leverage over the Israeli leader seems to be limited in this election year. Mr. Begin's proposal to hold the new talks in places other than Washington -- they will be held in egypt and in Israel over the next 40 days -- would further reduce that leverage.
At this writing, there were no signs that any agreement on substance had emerged from Prime Minister Begin's talks with President Carter at the white House April 15 and 16. There was agreement to keep talking on the autonomy question. And there was apparent agreement on the public-relations question of what to say if the May 26 target date for establishment of a framework for Palestinian autonomy fails to be met.
All three of the leaders involved have a political interest in keeping some kind of talks going and in presenting the agreements they reached last year at Camp David as a success. Indeed, Camp David is often spoken of by Washington commentators as one of the few clear-cut foreign policy successes of the Carter administration.
President Carter emerged from his meeting with Prime Minister Begin on April 16 to say that their talks had been "very constructive and productive."
Mr. Begin later said that the two leaders had "made progress in certain fields," but declined to go into detail. President Sadat would have to be consulted first, he said.
But despite these positive statements, it seemed clear that Israel on the one side and Egypt and the US on the other still disagreed on a number of major issues, including:
Israeli military control over security on the occupied West Bank; the pwoers of the proposed Palestinian administrative council; voting rights for Arabs living in east Jerusalem; the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; and Israeli control over land and water on the West Bank.
American officials indicated earlier that Israel's concern over West Bank security was so intense that the three sides were approaching agreemet on the need for a special committee, or commission, to deal with that issue alone.
Egypt's President Sadat had hoped to hold the newly agreed upon, intensified meetings in Washington. This would have made it easier for high-level American officials to mediate and perhaps intervene with ideas and pressure.
But Prime Minister Begin proposed that the talks be held in Egypt and Israel so that the ministers participating in the talks could be closer to home. Presidents Carter and Sadat went along with that suggestion.
During his recent talks here with President Carter, President Sadat had been more critical in public than ever before of the new Israeli settlemetns being built on the Jordan West Bank. But in answer to a question at a press conference on April 16, Mr. Begin said that Mr. Carter had not suggested a freeze on the settlements and that Israel had a legal right to continue building them.
The US and egypt contend that the settlements are illegal and create an obstacle to peace.
Mr. Sadat seems to be operating on the assumption that because of Mr. CArter's weaknesses on the domestic political front and a need to maintain support among Jewish voters in the coming election, Mr. Carter is in no position to exert heavy pressure on Israel. Some Middle East specialists also think that Mr. Sadat is working on the assumption that Mr. Begin may not long survive in office, given the economic and political pressures now building up in Israel.