EVENTS MAY reveal bigger and better things to hope for, realistically, in 1978. But our list of hopes today begins with what seems to us to be most immediately upon us. And that is what we, at least, still perceive to be an opportunity unprecedented in some 30 years of sustained hostility and intermittent warfare to lay solid foundations for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. We say this in full awareness that President Carter has announced what will surely be seen as an "emergency" detour to Egypt on his current foreign trip to deal with what will no doubt he pictured as a "crisis" in Egyptian-American understanding. Egypt, we read, is in "shock" over some things Mr. Carter said - or, rather, over some extremely loose paraphrases of what Mr. Carter said - last week in his television interview about the sort of independent Palestinian entity he would like to see set up on the West Bank territories. Syria remains seemingly hostile to the whole new Mideast initiative. The Jordanians are not at all pleased with the peace plan put forth by Israel's Prime Minister Menahem Begin as his response to the celebrated Jerusalem initiative undertaken by Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. Everywhere in the "Arab World," it would appear, there is dismay or uneasiness or outright hostility to the transforming events of the past few weeks. And, of course, there is sharp dissent within Israel, as well. The words "setback" and "disappointment" and "impasse" are in the air. And some part of all this is understandable; the post-Jerusalem euphoria was overblown.
But we think today's crisis atmosphere is overblown as well. And nothing better illustrates the point than the artificiality of the Carter-Sadat flap. It was - as much of the back-and-forth between the parties has been since Jerusalem - a media event. The parties most directly concerned are "negotiating" at one level by manipulation of the news media, and the media are making the most - and, in some cases, the worst of it. Thus a Carter reiteration of his preference for a Palestinian entity linked to Jordan (or Israel), becomes in the reporting of it a much harder statement of support for the Begin line and opposition to the Sadat line. And in the follow-up questioning of Mr. Sadat, this became grounds for "disappointment" and "embarrassment," based on "rejection" of Egyptian policy. When Mr. Sadat agreed that this may "hinder" an agreement "for some time" it was said that he "blames the delay" on President Carter.
Though the presidential entourage explains the Egyptian detour in terms of a general effort to broaden and accelerate the peace effort, this sort of talk by Mr. Sadat would be reason enough, we would have thought, for Mr. Carter to take time off to try to straighten things out. It remains a senseless flap, nonetheless, and one for which neither president can really be held accountable. Mr. Sadat reacted to what he thought his American countepart had said; but Mr. Carter had, in fact, said nothing that different in any material way from what he was consistently said, in public and in his direct conversations with Mr. Sadat, or that differed from the position that Mr. Sadat and most moderate Arab leaders are widely believed to hold. The problems were in the timing and the transmission - in the fierce strain, if you will, that modern communications imposes on the careful conduct of delicate diplomacy - as Murrey Marder pointed out ina thoughtful analysis in this newspaper on Saturday.
We would not suggest that Mr. Carter's trip to Egypt will set everything right - only that part that has gone needlessly wrong. Huge differences are going to have to be worked out by long, hard bargaining. And one can sympathize with the unease of officials - American, as well as Egyptian and Israeli - who have been caught up perhaps to rapidly in a process transformed by stunning new developments that, for the most part, they had no hand in initiating. But there are better guides to what lies ahead, we think, than this unease - or the sudden misunderstanding between Mr. Carter and Mr. Sadat. With respect to American "support" for the Begin peace proposal, for example, we note that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance described it the other day as no more than "an appropriate starting point." We would also direct your attention to the judgment of Mr. Begin, excerpted elsewhere on this page today, that the Ismailia summit was a "success" because it set the terms for the first face-to-face negotiations in over 30 years. And finally, we would cite a part of President Sadat's response to the Carter television interview - and to the Begin proposals - that was largely overlooked: That the Israelis are even speaking of "autonomy or self-determination" for the Palestinians, the Egyptian president said, "in itself is great progress . . . a great leap . . . and very encouraging for the future."