The Egyptian-Israeli deadlock may well force President Carter again to take a risky plunge into Middle East summitry. Such is the speculation in Washington in the wake of Egyptian President Sadat's decision to suspend negotiations with Israel on Palestinian "autonomy."
Before President Carter makes a move, however, he will be getting advice from his new Secretary of State, Edmund S. Muskie, who, according to one official, has "come on board fast" at the State Department with a forceful "I'm in charge" attitude. Mr. Muskie was to review the Egyptian- Israeli negotiations with Middle East specialists, including the US ambassadors to the two countries, May 12.
There seems to be agreement in the administration that Mr. Muskie is needed to convey a new sense of steadiness in American foreign policy, not only when it comes to the European allies and policy toward Iran but also when it comes to a number of Middle East countries that depend on the US for protection and support. Middle East turmoil, tension, and uncertainty have reached a high level -- all the way from Libya to Afghanistan -- in recent weeks.
Officials also hope Secretary Muskie will convey a sense of steadiness on the home front. They believe that if he succeeds in doing this, the administration will begin getting more credit for what it does right and less criticism for what it does wrong.
Officials argue that the State Department, just prior to Mr. Muskie's arrival on the job, handled two situations with skill: (1) the expulsion of four Libyan diplomats accused of intimidating critics of their country's leader, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, and (2) protests from Saudi Arabia over the showing May 12 on American television of a British film, "Death of a Princess," which the Saudis consider to be disparaging of Islam and of their society.
The dispute with Libya was resolved when that country decided to recall four members of its mission here who had resisted US expulsion orders.
Officials believe, meanwhile, that they have handled the Saudi protest with enough diplomatic tact to have defused that situation.
But the American press is accused of ignoring the skill that was involved in dealing with these two situations and focusing instead on President Carter's failure to attend the funeral of President Tito of Yugoslavia, the President's recent ungracious remarks concerning outgoing Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and the failure of the White House to make more of a public-relations success for the United States out of the refugee influx from Cuba.
Success in breaking the deadlock between Egypt and Israel might do more to give the administration an image of greater competence in foreigh affairs at this point than anything else. And a White House official said that anyone who thinks President Carter is afraid in this election year to undertake the high risks involved in three-way Middle East summitry, should the President see possible agreement arising from such summitry, is wrong.
American officials think the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on the Palestinian issue are at a critical juncture now, partly because, in their view, tension has never been higher among the Palestinians on the Israeli-occpied West Bank of the Jordan River. The US opposed Israel's decision recently to expel three leading Palestinians from the West Bank.
The US also has been careful not to criticize President Sadat for suspending the autonomy negotiations with Israel.
Officials doubt that President Sadat will break off relations with Israel altogether. But they do not rule out a dramatic, Sadat-style surprise May 14, when the Egyptian leader is to deliver a major address.
Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin has contended that the powers of any self-governing Palestinian council should be limited and that Israel must retain control over security in the occupied territories. On May 6 he was reported by the Reuter news agency to have told a meeting of the National Liberal Party in Jerusalem that anyone seeking peace with Israel must accept the principle that security would remain exclusively in the hands of the Israelis.
Egypt, however, wants the proposed Palestinian council to enjoy considerably power. The Egyptians argue that, otherwise, Palestinians of any standing will refuse to participate in the peace process, thus rendering it meaningless.