Give President Carter political credit. He has managed to exact from President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel an agreement to return to the limping West Bank autonomy talks and to join later in another summit meeting on Mideast peace. The President is thus able to keep his Camp David achievement before the public as he campaigns and hold out the promise of further progress if he is reelected.
There seems little doubt that President Sadat, who suspended the talks after Israel passed a law formalizing the annexation of East Jerusalem, accepted the summit proposal in order to help out Mr. Carter. He has formed a genuine feeling of friendship for the President. But, more than that, he cannot but reason that four more years of the Carter presidency is preferable to the unknown quantity of a Reagan presidency. Mr. Carter, after all, has helped Egypt get its land back and favors a homeland for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Mr. Reagan, on the other hand, has adopted an unabashedly pro-Israeli stance.
Even Mr. Begin must take seriously the possibility of Mr. Carter's reelection and therefore would not want totally to alienate him. On the face of it he must be immensely gratified by Mr. Reagan's posture on Israel. But he is also an astute politician and, by agreeing to a summit conference, he gains political points in the United States without losing anything of substance. It is clear that, once a summit is in the offing, the working autonomy talks are not going to come to grips with the basic issues, which require major concessions and therefore political decisions. These would necessarily be left to the Egyptian, Israeli, and US summiteers.
While President Carter is thus given a political boost by the promise of revival of the talks, few expect to see anything accomplished before the US presidential election. The underlying problem of peace in the Middle East is not in fact the absence of a vehicle for communication and negotiation -- these could have gone on even without a formal resumption of talks. It lies in the lack of political will -- on the part of both the Israelis and the Palestinians -- to move toward a more balanced, concialiatory position that would get the talks of dead center. Israel is constrained by Prime Minister Begin's ideological block to giving up any portion of what he calls Judea and Samaria and the Israeli people's trauma at taking the final steps of withdrawal with all the risks this might have for Israel's security. The Palestinians, for their part, are unwilling to abandon their call for Israel's extermination until they have won an iron-clad guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, which in their view means a Palestinian state.
The challenge for the next president of the United States will be to break through and get beyond these seemingly intractable differences of concept. To the extent that the auton- omy talks keep the Camp David issue alive, their resumption can only be welcomed. But getting at the heart of the conflict for any meaningful progress will have to await the end of the US election campaign, when the presidential contenders are no longer under such obvious pressures to court the Jewish vote. In political terms, Mr. Carter has maneuvered well.