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Keeping Mideast peace talks alive

The diplomatic maneuvering of recent weeks to keep the Camp David Middle East peace process afloat during this United States presidential election year can register limited success.

But whether the success is any more than putting enough air in a punctured tire to get the car to a repair station remains to bee seen.

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The process has involved a lot of prodding, pushing and pulling, calculated tactical moves, and -- off in the wings -- destructive violence and constructive encouragement.

The latest bit of constructive encouragement comes from Algiers, where Saudi Arabia -- with its eye on President Carter's economic difficulties -- again has dug its heels in against the proposed maximum oil price increase at the meeting of ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

A digging in of heels less welcome to Washington is that of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Speaking to ABC televistion news June 10, he rejected US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's diplomatically worded censure of Israel's settlement policy on the West Bank of the Jordan (voiced 24 hours earlier) and announced that Israel plans to establish 10 more settlements.

Israel's policy on the West Bank and in east Jerusalem had brought the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy to a halt last month -- on the initiative of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. What provoked him to withdraw from the talks was a bill introduced in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) by a private member that would further legalize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem , seized during the "six-day war" of 1967.

Mr. Sadat's move probably was a tactical one intended to produce an initiative from the Carter administration, making the point to Mr. Begin that Israel could not (as most Arabs see it) use the immobility of an incumbent US President facing re-election to proceed unchecked with the creeping annexation of the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The Egyptian President has secured that initiative. The Carter administration publicly has deplored "unilateral actions that prejudice the final status of the [occupied] territories" and has persuaded Israeli and Egyptian negotiators to come to Washington to discuss resumption of the autonomy talks. As a sop to the Israelies, the Carter administration said the negotiations could not succeed "if one side is insensitive to the concerns of the other."

At the crux of the crisis remain the Palestinians -- central to the overall Arab-Israel dispute from the outset, but not always recognized as such. If there was a flaw in the Camp David accords, It was that the agreements centered on Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and brought the question of the Palestinians in only by the back door. That method presumably was needed to win Prime Minister Begin's signature on the final documents: He always has been a hard-liner on the question of the Palestinians and of the West Bank (which he studiedly calls "Judea and Samaria").

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There are those who suspect that Mr. Begin was forthcoming on withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula only to buttress his ultimate bargaining position on Judea and Samaria. This position is seen as an ideological commitment to permanent control of the West Bank as an integral part of the biblical "land of Israel," which Jews believe belongs to them by right. To him, the West Bank was "liberated," not "occupied," in 1967.

This interpretation has found confirmation in Mr. Begin's approach to authonomy in negotiations over the past year. For him and his team, "autonomy" means only limited self-government for West Bank Palestinians but firm Israeli control over the West Bank's land and water. Alongside this have gone the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and, most recently, the implantation of Israelis in the Arab city of Hebron.

The result has been an escalation of violence on the West Bank -- Israelis killed in Hebron and West Bank Arab mayors gravely hurt by booby-trap bombs in their cars.

This upsurge of violence, together with the stalling of the autonomy talks, sharpened the division within the Palestinian political resistance movement. It gave the edge to the Palestinian hard-liners -- mirror image of the Israeli hard-line zealots -- at the recent gathering of Palestinians in Syria.

As spring moved toward summer, members of the European Community have been weighing publicly and privately whether to take an initiative of their own toward getting the Palestinians international recognition as a full negotiating party in Middle East settlement negotiations.

This whole idea has been anathema to Mr. Begin. Partly to assuage him and partly because it wanted to revive and keep going undisturbed the Camp David process, the Carter administration reacted bluntly against any such European move.

Mr. Sadat demurred more discreetly. But there may be grounds for wondering whether both the US State Department (as indicated by more mellow words last week from Secretary of State Muskie) and Mr. Sadat might not have seen in the European maneuvering a not entirely unwelcome adding to the pressures on Mr. Begin.

The Saudi role on the sidelines continues, too, to play a part. It goes beyond Saudi efforts in the direction of minimal oil price increases -- intended as a signal of at least qualified support for the US. Best information is that Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia -- chief executive of Saudi government policy -- wants to keep embarrassment to President Carter to a minimum.

The Bottom line in any Saudi government decision is whether it contributes to the durability of the Saudi royal family. This results sometimes in outward paradoxes and ambiquities -- not to mention hedging of bets. Thus, while the Saudis are publicly critical of the Camp David process, they may well rejoice if it succeeds.

President Sadat in the past has excoriated them for being critical of him. But, perhaps with US private encouragement, public attacks on the Saudis have been halted in Egypt, and the Saudis have taken note.

It nevertheless would be premature to expect any dramatic move from the Saudis toward Camp David or Mr. Sadat until the Camp David process produces more positively dramatic developments than a mere resumption of the talks and Senator Muskie's wagging of his finger at Mr. Begin.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia needs to keep its line out to the US because of the perceived threat to Saudi interests from renewed activism by Iraq as a potential Gulf power and from revolutionary Shia Islam across the Gulf in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran.

There is a parallel move toward lessening the alienation of King Hussein of Jordan, who has resented being snubbed or taken for granted by the US (as he sees it) ever since the Camp David process began. He compensated for this by cautious rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, with which he was daggers drawn a decade ago.

Now King Hussein is making plans to come to Washington in response to an official invitation from the Carter administration.

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