There is no skirting the political overtones of President Carter's invitation to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to visit Washington for separate talks on the Mideast situation. Aside from all his other foreign policy problems, Mr. Carter greatly damaged his credibility by his repudiation of a US vote against Israel in the United Nations. That disavowal has left the Middle East talks in shambles. If the President can now show a modicum of progress through high-level meetings, he may be able to extricate himself from his political embarrassment, refurbish his image as a peacemaker, and put his political opponents off guard.
Political benefits aside, however, Mr. Carter does have an extremely difficult diplomatic problem on his hands. As matters now stand, no progress seems to be possible in the talks on autonomy for the West Bank. Negotiations are supposed to be completed by the target date of May 26, but the Israelis and Egyptians have come to no agreement on the substantive issues. These include who shall control land and water, how internal security will be handled, whether the new self-governing authority should have legislative power to decide its own future, and what to do about the Jewish settlements. The latter question has been especially aggravated by Israel's continuing policy of taking over West Bank land and building Jewish communities -- a policy Mr. Carter and President Sadat understood Israel would suspend.
It can be readily seen that the whole Camp David diplomacy is in jeopardy unless Mr. Carter can manage to keep the process going. No one can reasonably expect the President to resolve the outstanding conflicts in the negotiations -- given Prime Minister Begin's inflexible stand and given Mr. Carter's political inability in an election year to bring pressures to bear on the Israeli leader. But he conceivably could extract something to keep the talks alive after the target date. Certainly the world can only be saddened by the disappointing course of the negotiations following the promising start toward peace made by the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Now that the parties are at the toughest stage of peacemaking, everything possible should be done not to let the momentum irretrievably slip.
Israel already is mindful of alternatives which might develop if the Camp David option ends in stalemate. Not only the Palestinians, the Saudis, and other Arabs are frustrated at the lack of progress. The West Europeans, too, who have such a stake in guaranteed Middle East oil supplies, believe the time has come for other diplomatic strategies. Impetus is gathering for affirmation of the "Palestinian right to self-determination" and recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Austria has already given official diplomatic status to a PLO representative. European leaders also are preparing the ground for a new initiative -- an amendment of UN Resolution 242 which has served as the cornerstone for all Mideast peace negotiations until now. Such an amendment would call, among other things, for an international Middle East peace conference.
Not surprisingly, Israel sees the conspiratorial hand of Washington behind these European stirrings. There is no hard evidence to suggest this, and US officials in fact express concern that the developments in Europe only complicate the Camp David process. Be that as it may, they do serve to remind Israel, Egypt, and the United States that control of Middle East diplomacy may pass to other hands if this opportunity for peaceful negotiation is shortsightedly allowed to dissipate.
The world will be reminded next week of President Carter's greatest diplomatic achievement when some 1,300 guests gather at the White House for a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Mr. Carter may be able to capitalize politically on a recollection of that event. But it is not likely to benefit him in the long term, either at home or abroad, unless he manages to come up with something which will convince people that Camp David summitry is alive and well -- and moving, however slowly, toward a genuine settlement. In a charged election atmosphere, that will not be easy.