President Carter, "absolutely intent" on unclogging the Palestinian autonomy talks, may be edging toward an election-year confrontation with Israel in the process.
Pressure for Israeli concessions is one element in a loose negotiating plan gleaned from US officials at preparatory talks for Mr. Carter's separate April summit with the leaders of Israel and its Arab peace partner, Egypt.
But the central message of the just-completed meetings here between US envoy Sol Linowitz and Prime Minister Menachem Begin is that Israel is in no mood for substantive concessions to Palestinians on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr. Begin welcomed the US negotiator with the announcement of Cabinet approval for a renewed Jewish presence in the heart of Hebron, the West Bank's second-largest Arab town. He saw off Mr. Linowitz with rejection of an American request for at least a two-month freeze on Israeli settlement. That uncompromising stance was no great surprise, even to US officials, but it underscored Mr. Begin's stated determination that Israel keep a tight hold over the occupied territories.
While US officials suggest that some of the major autonomy issues -- such as ultimate control of West Bank land and water -- could be put off, they say Israel will have to agree to some substantive widening of its current vision of Palestinian autonomy.
Mr. Carter's push for progress on autonomy comes in the shadow of a May "goal" for agreement set by him, Mr. Begin, and Egyptian President Sadat with the signing of history's first Arab-Israeli peace exactly a year ago.
Egypt, an Arab state without Arab friends, sees the target date as a rigid deadline; it has been hinting darkly of a "new situation" if the deadline is not met. Israel says a target date is a target date; and while Israeli officials say they would like to ease Mr. Sadat's woes, they reject doing so at the cost of what are viewed here as life-or-death "security" issues.
President Carter, a top US official said before Mr. Linowitz jetted to Egypt March 25, is "absolutely intent on getting either an agreement, or sizable and substantive progress" by May 26. Is the target date a deadline? That, said the official, is "metaphysics. . . . The important thing is that the President takes the date very seriously."
He has good reason to.The achievement of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, one of the administration's major foreign-policy victories, is being overshadowed by its most glaring omission: a clear design for resolving the Palestinian issue.
At the same time, even traditional US allies in the oil-rich Arab world are angered at what they see as a US and Israeli denial of Palestinian rights. This anger, in turn, complicates President Carter's bid for a concerted regional response to Soviet moves in Afghanistan.
US diplomats are careful to stress that both Israel and Egypt will have to soften if an autonomy breakthrough is to be made. But they imply strongly that the more concrete concessions -- agreeing to specific areas of authority for autonomous Palestinians -- will have to come from Israel.
Mr. Linowitz, no stranger to tough negotiations, skillfully scheduled his March 25 Jerusalem news conference for before a final meeting with Mr. Begin. This allowed him to beg off detailed comment on outstanding autonomy issues for fear of preempting that session.
But various US officials, speaking privately, provided a picture of a tentative negotiating strategy to meet the autonomy target date, or at least mark substantial progress in that direction:
* To break down a vicious battle over opposing peace "principles" and concentrate instead on what concrete powers autonomous Palestinians would get. Mr. Linowitz, in frequent contact with Mr. Carter, is trying to identify the most tractable issues in this regard.
Early indications from US officials are that decisions about who is given the final say in certain major areas of authority could be left for later. But since Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza, any moves to give autonomy more substance imply Israeli softening.
* To chalk up enough meaningful areas of Palestinian authority to make eventual elections more than a "pointless exercise," in the words of one US diplomat, and avoid the danger of a Palestinian autonomy scheme without willing Palestinian participants or other Arab backers.
* To press Israel if necessary for these specific concessions -- after leaning on both sides to leave the thorniest issues for a later, and more serious, process of negotiation.
US officials either could not or would not say what form pressure on Israel might take. They acknowledged that the process could be complicated by US electoral pressures -- despite President Carter's recent public insistence that domestic politics and peacemaking should not mix. But Israeli officials have expressed private concern that a convincing Carter win in the March 25 New York primary could give the President a much freer hand.
One American diplomat, meanwhile, said there had been increased US "contacts" over West European plans for a distinctly pro- Arab initiative -- although Washington was making it clear that its only immediate concern was to speed the Palestinian autonomy process, a goal hardly helped by the European maneuvers.
* Finally, to explore what Mr. Sadat once termed "confidence-building measures." These could include an early redeployment of Israeli troops, or a settlement freeze. Neither of these is likely -- the freeze, indeed, seemed effectively excluded after Mr. Linowitz's talks. But "confidence" measures are no longer the point, US officials commented privately.
President Carter, they stressed, wants more fundamental progress -- a desire that could well imply more fundamental, if less immediate, concessions from Israel.