The calls to abandon the Camp David ship are premature. True, it will not arrive on schedule Monday, the May 26 target date for wrapping up Egypt-Israel negotiations on Palestinian autonomy. And the patience of the Arab oil- producing world will not be indefinite, as is realized by those Western Europeans who want to press for solutions on their own before their gas tanks suffer.
But to miss a date is not necessarily to destroy a process. Remember how then Secretary of State Vance warned about any failure to meet the original deadline of Dec. 17, 1978, for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty itself? The parties did fail to meet the deadline. But they persisted. Does anyone now worry about the extra three months the process took?
This is an argument for perspective, not complacency. While much of the spadework has been accomplished in the autonomy talks, major issues have resisted resolution. Israel has appeared to take advantage of the period with such steps as defying the United Nations -- not to mention its own staunchest friend, the United States -- by authorizing additional settlements in occupied territories. And the US has failed -- notably in the eyes of the Arab world, including America's particular friend, Saudi Arabia -- to exert the economic and diplomatic influence on Israel to reduce its intransigence. There has to be a renewed impetus on all sides if the Camp David approach is to justify the further chance that the Camp David parties -- Israel, Egypt, and the US -- are seeking.
In the absence of such impetus, there seems no doubt the Europeans will move forward with such efforts as revising UN Resolution 242 to take specific account of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. While these efforts may create diplomatic complications, the net effect could be constructive in spurring progress on the Camp David route.
A glaring obstacle is the fact of this being a presidential election year in the United States, with President Carter apparently placing more weight on his reading of Israel supporters in the US than on international needs -- or even on opinion within Israel, where there seems to be plenty of debate over current official policy. One point is, of course, that support for Israel is not incompatible with seeking the genuine Palestinian autonomy whose absence remains a threat to Israel security as well as a denial of human rights.
Egypt long put considerable emphasis on meeting the May 26 date; it needs to show its Arab brethren that its separate peace with Israel is not a deterrent but an aid toward broader Mideast justice and reconciliation. But Egypt also seems sensitive to the US political situation. Just before Egyptian Vice- President Mubarek's visit to Washington, President Sadat's new chief autonomy negotiator, Kamal Hassan Ali, made an accommodating suggestion in Cairo. He mentioned a period of six months for further autonomy talks -- which would put a new target date after the US election in November. Failure again at that time would unmistakably open the door to the Europeans, though at present Egypt does not support European efforts.
US Secretary of State Muskie also considers a European initiative "from the sidelines" to be counterproductive at this point. He sees that certain matters such as West Bank security, water rights, and Palestinian council responsibilities have to be ironed out no matter what the forum. Deadline slippage is not too high a price for reaching sound agreements. If President Sadat, who began it all with his Jerusalem trip, is willing to try one more time , so should the rest of us be.