Few diplomatic hands think the Camp David agreement is an adequate vehicle for negotiating the next stage of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. But, in the absence of any other formula, skepticism should not be allowed to dismiss the Camp David Framework. It is certainly better to keep talking than not -- in whatever forum. This is why the agreement reached by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Sadat to resume the West Bank autonomy talks next month is a welcome development.
It is now a year since the talks were broken off by Mr. Sadat to protest Israel's formal annexation of Arab East Jerusalem. Even before then there was little evidence of a meeting of the minds on what "autonomy" for the 1.3 million Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip really means. Israel interprets the word in a narrow way. It would grant the Palestinians certain rights of administrative self-rule; but it would retain security powers and bar the formation of a self-governing entity which might resemble a separate state. Egypt, for its part, wants a fuller-blown autonomy plan which would ultimately allow for genuine self-determination of the Palestinian people.
The gap is wide, and the question is what the United States is prepared to do both to involve the Palestinians in the talks and to break the deadlock. In theory, Washington supports the UN resolutions on which the Camp David accords are based. Yet President Reagan has yet to formulate a policy on the Arab-Israel dispute -- waiting presumably until he has heard out the views of Mr. Begin, King Hussein of Jordan, and Saudi Crown Prince Fahd during their upcoming visits to Washington. This may account for the noncommittal US reception of the recently floated Saudi peace plan, a proposal that contains many positive elements, including guarantee of the right of all states (including Israel) to live in peace with each other.
If the future outlines of US diplomacy are still unclear, however, events have not stood still in the Middle East. For one, the palestine Liberation Organization, with which Israel indirectly concluded a cease-fire in Lebanon, appears to have enhanced its diplomatic standing. More and more, the Us is urged at home and abroad to deal directly with the PLO -- a move which the Reagan administration could make contingent on continued PLO responsibility with respect to the cease-fire. Israel remains bitterly opposed to the PLO, but Mr. Reagan, if he wants to advance the peace process, ought to be firmly nudging both Israel and the PLO toward more reasonable positions on the issue of recognition.
It would be unrealistic to expect the West Bank autonomy talks to produce a quick breakthrough. But their revival will force the Reagan administration to come to grips with the fundamental issues of the Mideast conflict -- and decide just how the US can constructively foster the goal of peace.