The whole Camp David process for a Middle East settlement is in jeopardy from two simultaneous developments: * The United Nations General Assembly's resolution setting a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.
* The Israeli parliament's move formally reasserting that a united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Faced with this twin threat to one of President Carter's major foreign-policy achievements, the United States administration has responded vigorously on both fronts.
It voted firmly against the UN resolution -- one of only seven to do so. And it deplored the Israeli parliament's action as "not helpful."
The Camp David process is, in fact, already stalled -- albeit short of a complete breakdown. The stumbling block is how to tackle "full autonomy" and "a self-governing authority" for the Palestinians. Both Israel and Egypt are committed to these concepts under the agreements signed in the presence of President Carter in Washington in 1979.
US State Department spokesman John Trattner spoke July 30 of "a logical fear" that "unilateral action" on Jerusalem by Israel might cause Egypt to walk out of the Palestinian autonomy talks. Under the Camp David accords, the parties agreed to postpone the issue of Jerusalem -- the most sensitive of all -- until other questions had been settled.
Carter administration officials are convinced that there is no better alternative available for trying to work out a Middle East settlement than the Camp David formula. That is why they are so concerned when actions from any quarter threaten it.
Sixteen months have passed since the agreements were formally signed on the White House lawn. Israeli withdrawal from Sinai is on track. The holdup is in the part of the agreements that links them to the Palestinians and the continued Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
The holdup is easily explained. The whole question of the Palestinians and of possible Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is, in the last resort, traumatic for the Israelis in a way in that withdrawal from Sinai is not. This is because most Israelis see the West Bank as a "life and death" issue, which Sinai was not.
The stalling of the negotiations has increased tensions and frustrations on all sides.
Most immediately dangerous is the situation on the West Bank itself. The mood of Palestinians living there, under Israeli occupation since 1967, gets uglier and angrier as the Israelis tighten their hold on the area with the expansion of Jewish settlements and now the declared intention to transfer the prime minister's office to East Jerusalem.
But a pattern has developed whereby the greater the outside pressure on Israel to be less intransigent, the more intransigent the Israelis become. Their latest action on Jerusalem should be seen, in part, as their response to pressure from both the UN General Assembly and the European Community (whose nine members, incidentally, held back from voting with the US against the UN resolution and preferred to abstain.)
Constructive critics of the Camp David process tend to zero in on what they see as the inadequacy (or inefficacy to date) of the agreements in drawing the Palestinians into the negotiating process. Some of these same critics -- in addition to Arabs who have rejected Camp David from the start -- argue that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) already should be involved in the negotiations or generally recognized as the proper spokesman for the Palestinians. Even the European Community, referring to the PLO in its Middle East declaration last month, said it "will have to be associated with the negotiations."
US government officials say they feel that this overlooks or minimizes the considerable achievement of the Camp David accords, which won from the Israelis recognition that "representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects."
The US aim in the negotiations -- to which it is a party with Egypt and Israel -- is to take concepts agreed in the basic accords and, like a rubber band, see how far they can be stretched to meet the basic requirements of those involved in each case.
Outside the US, however, there is a widespread perception that American negotiators are necessarily immobilized during a campaign year because of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in US domestic politics. Hence the prodding from outside -- from the relatively friendly European Community to the hostile Arab hard-liners in the UN General Assembly. Hence, too, Israel's assertive resistance.
The result on the spot is a more explosive situation that at any time since the Camp David treaty was signed.