Back to the autonomy talks

President Carter perhaps gains something politically by resumption of the negotiations on the issue of Palestinian autonomy. The Camp David accords remain his principal diplomatic achievement and he would like to point to continuing US efforts to bring about a comprehensive Middle East peace. Scarcely anyone believes, however, that really substantive progress can be made in the talks before the presidential election. Such progress would require putting more American pressure on Israel than the domestic political scene would bear. So, regrettable as it may seem, diplomacy is taking a back seat.

Even the November election aside, many wonder if the Camp David formula has not run its course. The first part of the agreement, the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty, stands as a signal tribute to the Carter diplomacy and, as time goes on, contributes in itself to stabilizing the region. But the second part of the accords -- the achievement of some form of self-autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza -- remains an elusive objective for two reasons. One is the inability of Egypt and Israel to agree on such basic issues as land, water, security, the powers of the self-governing authority, and whether the almost 200 ,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem may vote in the West Bank election. The other is the unwillingness of the Palestinians and Jordan to join the negotiations. Fueling the deadlock on both scores is the Begin government's provocative settlement policy and apparent determination to batten down Israeli sovereignty over the contested areas.

In light of the impasse, many now come to the conclusion that little can be accomplished until there is a political change in Israel. The Egyptians, in fact, look to a new Labor Party government to negotiate a comprehensive peace, and one hears more and more these days about new diplomatic approaches such a government might take. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, for instance, proposes setting up a model autonomous entity in the Gaza Strip, holding new elections of mayors on the West Bank who would then bargain for the Palestinians, and inviting King Hussein to negotiate new borders for a West Bank entity to be confederated with his nation. Israel would keep only the land necessary for its security. Former Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has also indicated his party's willingness to turn over most of the West Bank and Gaza.

Whether a partial territorial settlement would suit the Palestinians and Jordan any more than the Camp David formula is open to question. It does seem a more realistic approach. In any case, it is clear that new ideas are percolating and these could be useful once the political scene settles down in both the United States and Israel. In the meantime the general gloom about Camp David should not obscure the factors which in the long run will play a role in the search for a peace settlement:

* An evolution of Israeli thinking is going on. As Israelis experience the economic and security benefits of peace with Egypt, they will perhaps lose their inordinate fear of annihilation at the hands of the Arabs. The Peace Now movement gains in strength and this could help produce a moderate governing coalition in Israel.

* American-Jewish opinion in the United States is also changing on the side of moderation. Recently 56 prominent American Jews signed a statement issued in Israel advocating territorial compromise on the West Bank and denouncing the Jewish "extremists" and "religious chauvinism" which were frustrating peace efforts.

* As long as President Sadat of Egypt can continue on his course and demonstrate that peace with Israel is workable, this seems to preclude a serious military option on the Arab side. Jordan and Syria will have to think about an alternative position rather than accepting the status quo.

This brings us to the Palestinians who, appearances often to the contrary, do have a degree of political realism. The question is how much? One of the sad facts about the position of the Arabs in general has been lack of the kind of diplomatic boldness and courage which enabled President Sadat to bring about a breakthrough. If the Palestine Liberation Organization, for instance, were to renounce its traditional position that it does not recognize the right of Israel to exist, this act would probably generate a pro-PLO diplomatic momentum throughout the world which Israel would find difficult to resist. We understand that the PLO does not want to give up what it regards as its chief bargaining card. But if Mr. Sadat had rested on outworn positions he would not today have Egypt's land back. The challenge to the PLO is to rise above petty bickering and demonstrate statesmanship.

The Camp David talks, in short, seem to be a holding operation. There is merit in keeping the peace process alive. But, in the long run, a new vision may be needed.

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