Whether the first American concern is with Israel's security or the free flow of Persian Gulf oil (as the Israelis regularly suggest) is no longer of any great moment. As a matter of fixed policy, the two have become inextricably entwined:
The United States, it's generally agreed, cannot expect to be able to deal with the growing danger of expanding Soviet influence in Southwest Asia without, at the same time, making some progress in resolving differences between Israel and the Arabs, oil-rich or otherwise.
That being the case, it becomes all the more urgent to ask how much, if anything, is likely to be done to advance the Camp David "peace process" between now and November (if President Carter wins reelection) or next January (if he loses). Nothing much -- from the look of things.
The so-called autonomy talks on the future of the West Bank and Gaza are in suspension. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's hold on power is more than ever tenuous. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, who broke off the talks, is insisting that the next move is up to the United States.
Any American initiative, however, would mean putting pressure on Israel. An it is almost an article of faith that American presidents running for reelection (and particularly Democratic presidents) cannot afford even to seem to be putting the arm on Israel.
But this time around I wouldn't count on it. The decision, in the end, will be Jimmy Carter's to make. And while probably only Mrs. Carter could tell you what degree exactly the president would be willing to suffer the wrath of the American Jewish community for the sort of heat he would have to apply to Israel to move the "autonomy" talks along, the president's close advisers will tell you that you could be very wrong in assuming automatically that he will deal with the Arab-Israeli dispute in the traditional election-year way.
The president himself, they report, has said as much, privately. And their reasons for thinking that he means business go well beyond the larger strategic concern -- the strong connection between progress on Palestine and progress on security arrangements in the Persian Gulf.
For one thing, Carter's reliance on the support of Israel's more stalwart American supporters is measurably less than that of his Democratic predecessors, if only because he has already alienated large numbers of them beyond recall. For another, there is one striking exception to the traditional rule: President Eisenhower's intervention to halt the Suez War in 1956 well short of the objectives of the joint Israeli-French-British expeditionary force. Peace, it turned out, was a bigger issue than Israel's sense of its own best interests.
The same might be so for Carter. A dramatic display of leadership in nailing down another corner of the Camp David accords by successfully concluding the autonomy negotiations could be a large net gain in a close campaign.
And if not, an even more powerful incentive might still be there for a president whose place in history could well rest heavily on the fate of his famous but still unfinished Camp David "framework for peace" in the Middle East.
Whatever way he looks at it, close associates insist, Jimmy Carter has reason to push ahead, hard and soon.
With an honest effort all around,they believe the autonomy negotiations could be whipped into shape for resolution by a Carter-Begin-Sadat summit meeting within six to eight weeks. An Egyptian diplomat says two weeks would do it. Even the Israelis concede that, theoretically, the outstanding autonomy issues would not be all that hard to resolve.
What the Israelis fear is an agreement on paper that the three parties to the negotiations could accept, but that would not be accepted by Jordan or the Palestinians. As one Israeli diplomat puts it: "We don't want to make more concessions this year, and then be told next year: 'It's not working; the Palestinians won't buy it; you've got to do more.'"
With Sadat forcing the pace and Saudi Arabia suddenly sounding more conciliatory, however, the Israelis will also have to consider the consequences of seeming to be the spoilers. One consequence could be loss of American public support, another the surrendering of the American mediator's role to the eager Europeans, whose sense of a sound Mideast settlement is one very much on Arab terms.
Even so, the Israelis may stand pat, gambling that Carter won't push too hard. The administration's next initative may fail. But the odds in its favor are at least as good, it seems to me, as they were at certain stages along the torturous road to Camp David and beyond to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. r