THE name Camp David -- the presidential retreat in Virginia -- will long be linked with a breakthrough in the unsettled politics of the Middle East, thanks to Jimmy Carter. But while President Reagan has sought to further the accords reached at Camp David in 1978 by Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel, little progress has been made toward peace in the Middle East since then.
And former President Carter is not shy about explaining why he thinks that is so. The current administration, says Mr. Carter, simply does not have a cohesive Middle East policy, despite some attempts at diplomacy. In New York City to promote the reissue in paperback of his book on the Middle East, Carter talked about Reagan's foreign policy, the American public's perceptions of Arabs, and the ambitions of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
``I am convinced that the majority of Israelis want peace, as do the majority of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians,'' says Carter. ``The obstacle is the leaders.'' If the purpose of foreign policy is to spur diplomacy and commitment to negotiation, then it is lacking in the White House and at the State Department, he says. Appreciating Mideast complexities
Most important, the former President claims, the Reagan administration has departed substantially from the policies of previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, in its inclination to use force rather than quiet diplomacy. The result of Reagan's policy will be to thwart efforts to bring some peace and stability to the region, he says.
One of the premises of his book, ``The Blood of Abraham'' (Houghton Mifflin Co.) is that the complexities of the Middle East must be better understood, and all the various voices in the fray must be listened to. ``Americans want to know things in simple, black-and-white terms,'' he admits, which can lead to an avoidance of the realities in the Middle East.
One of the political consequences of current Reagan administration policy, says Carter, is that the United States is becoming too closely aligned to Israel in the eyes of much of the world. It is important for the US, as a conciliator in the region, to retain the trust of all nations there, he says. The US can remain a staunch, strong ally of Israel while being fair and unbiased toward the Arab world. `This is a form of racism'
In the US, there is a tendency to tar the entire Arab community with the terrorist brush, says Carter. But he points out that Arabs have suffered much more from terrorism than Americans. It is easier to say that all Palestinians are terrorists than to understand their history, just as it is easier for Arabs to look on all Zionists as terrorists, he says. And Americans, heavily influenced by such stereotypes, see Arabs as inferior people. ``This is a form of racism,'' says Carter.
But this does not mean the US should be anything but tough when dealing with Arab leaders. He points to a period during his presidency when hijackings seemed to be on the rise, with the complicity of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. President Carter joined with other Western leaders in sending a note to the Libyan leader, saying that if hijacked planes were allowed to land in Libya, those Western nations would cut off air travel and communications. It worked, says Carter.
There will never be peace in the Middle East, he feels, until the issue of a homeland for the Palestinian people is addressed. In the 19th year of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a new generation of Palestinians has far less awe and respect for Israeli military prowess, Carter says. They have seen the Israelis lose some battles. The West Bank remains a powder keg.
But he adds that there are Israeli leaders who are appalled at the idea of a permanent deprivation of human rights for Palestinians. It is an anomalous situation, when a significant portion of a population lives without the right to vote, travel freely, and hold property, he says.
One of the problems, says Carter, is that the Palestinians have never been willing to compromise. The Palestine Liberation Organization refuses to clearly recognize Israel's right to exist as a pre-condition to negotiations. As a result, the Palestinians have ended up with nothing.
``I don't know what will ultimately happen, '' says President Carter. He sees both promising and forbidding signs. While he was writing his book, Carter posited that current Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres might try to challenge his Likud partners and seek to remain as head of the government. (A coalition government between Labour and Likud was formed in September l984 with the promise that Mr. Peres would step down this October and allow Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir to head the government.) But now Carter believes the change in government will occur, and, as a result, the chances for peace will lessen. The right-wing Likud bloc, says Carter, has refused to consider any effort to negotiate the return of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to Jordan or the Palestinians as outlined in the terms of the Camp David agreement. Assessing the Syrian role
In his book, Carter looks at other Mideast leaders, including Syrian President Hafez Assad. Though he calls Mr. Assad ``patient and flexible,'' Carter also refers to him as complicated and ruthless. Assad is patient in that he is willing to wait for the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which he is convinced will come back to Syria. He is flexible -- not necessarily in Israel's favor -- in that he looks at current events and adapts himself to changing times. Carter points to the invasion of Lebanon by Syria in 1976 in support of the Maronite Christians, rather than the Muslim factions. Syria is still in Lebanon, but now supports the Muslims.
And Carter has no doubt that Assad will continue to keep Lebanon within the Syrian sphere of influence. Indeed, though Carter does not think Assad has taken the place of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as the recognized leader of the Arab world, he sees that as Assad's goal. He says the Syrian president also has an ultimate goal of a unified Arab nation without today's political boundaries.