Mr. Carter's disavowal of the recent UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements signals a serious retreat from American responsibility in the Middle East peace process. The United States will no longer be viewed as the only outside power capable of producing a settlement of the Palestinian conflict. The specter of American inaction has brought Europe into the picture.
The West European community, particularly France, Britain, and West Germany, believes that European interests in the Middle East would be better served by regional stability, that long-term stability would be served by a resolution of the Palestinian conflict, and that such a resolution must include the security of all states, including Israel, and the self-determination of all peoples, including the Palestinians.
While Washington shares the European view of the linkage between a Palestinian solution and Middle Eastern stability, it has yet to accept self-determination for the Palestinians. This position is puzzling to many Europeans. As one of them noted recently, self- determination, in addition to being a Wilsonian doctrine, has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy since the early years of the Republic.
Equally curious to the Europeans was Mr. Carter's repudiation of the UN vote, particularly in light of Washington's long-established opposition to the settlements.This opposition was reiterated recently by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance when he told the House Foreign Relations Committee that the UN resolution did not violate US policy. On the contrary, "it was consistent with all aspects of American policy."
On the eve of the UN vote, one got the impression in talking to some US government officials, who were intimately familiar with US- Middle East policy, that the resolution was intended to convey to Israel Mr. Carter's anger over the new Israeli policy allowing Jews to settle inside Hebron, a major Arab town in the occupied territory. In fact, those officials felt that the resolution was a diplomatic coup for the Carter administration. Sponsored by Jordan and Morocco on behalf of the Islamic nations, the resolution had the support of practically the entire world community. It was to be an unmistakable illustration to the Arab/Islamic world, including the oil states of the Persian Gulf, of Mr. Carter's commitment to resolve the Palestinian conflict in all of its aspects. Egypt supported the resolution strongly, indicating to the other Arab states that the American connection did pay, that Camp David was the only game in town, and that this was the only route to peace.
The repudiation of the vote shattered all those expectations and dealt a severe, perhaps insurmountable blow to American credibility from London to Kabul. No one believed that the American vote was a result of poor communications between the White House and Foggy Bottom. The entire world does believe that Mr. Carter submitted to domestic political pressure.
Unfortunately for the United States, the European community has concluded that the Carter administration's peace efforts have become hopelessly damaged and that, if Western interests are to be served, an active European peace effort should be attempted. If the Europeans are going to run with the ball, as they seem to have decided to do, it won't be long before they will invite the Russians, for accommodationist reasons, to join in the process. By thus rejecting Mr. Carter's characterization of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as the most dangerous development since World War II, the Europeans in Effect will tell the Soviets that European and American interests do sometimes diverge.
If a Soviet-West European rapprochement occurs and a joint peace effort emerges, particularly if it is based on a mutuality of recognition of Palestinians and Israelis, it will receive the support of most if not all of the Arab, Islamic, and third-world countries, plus Japan. The United States would stand alone, isolated and wondering "who lost the peace?"
In light of this grim but plausible scenario, if Washington is interested in saving the Camp David formula, it should take several steps simutaneously.
* Initiate contacts with Israelis and Palestinians with a view toward enunciating a new position to be agreed on by the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian leadership offering mutual recognition of Palestinian self-determination and Israel's existence.
* Expand the present "autonomy" talks to include southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Once self-determination is recognized, Palestinian participation in the negotiations would simply be a matter of time. And once that happens, other Arab states would perhaps find it convenient to seize the opportunity and join the talks.
* In the context of the proposed multitrack negotiations, the negotiating parties would consist of the following configurations. For the West Bank and Gaza: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United States, and Jordan (including a Palestinian delegation). For southern Lebanon: Israel, Egypt, United States, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon (including a Palestinian delegation). For the Golan: Israel, Egypt, United States, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Inviting Saudi participation in the talks as a full partner reflects the fact that Saudi Arabia will be called upon to finance the reconstruction of the areas in question once peace comes. In addition, Saudi participation in the talks would have the support of most Arab Gulf states and would also have a moderating influence on the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians.
By including the Palestinians in the Jordanian delegation for the West Bank and Gaza and in the Lebanese delegation for southern Lebanon, the negotiating Israeli government might find it easier to present to the Israeli public the idea of negotiating with the Palestinians rather than negotiating with the Palestinian leadership directly and as a separate partner. Also, under this form of negotiation, the Palestinians would be given the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to settle the conflict through negotiation and their desire to live in peace with their neighbors. Available evidence indicates that, once their right to self-determination is recognized by the United States and Israel, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza would urge the Palestine Liberation Organization to support the principle of negotiation with Israel and would ask for a clear signal from the PLO to go ahead with the negotiating process.