The United States and the major Arab countries are not far apart on the outline of principles to form the basis of a Geneva Conference and a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, according to informed Arab sources.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance is carrying both the U.S. and Arab versions of the principles for a settlemen to Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin on Tuesday. Unless Israel commits itself to some acceptable version, the Arabs do not expect a Geneva conference to be convened this year or in the foreseeable future.
The likelihood of a clash between U.S. and Israeli views was increased by news reports from Tel Aviv quoting one of Begin's close advisers, Shmuel Katz, as saying that Israel will refuse to discuss the "contents of peace talks" in advance of the Geneva conference and that, in Katz judgment, Begin will not discuss substantive matters relating to a Middle East settlement with Vance.
All indications are that the U.S. principles are elaborations of ideas previously set forth by President Carter: Return of territory, captured by Israel in 1967 and creation of a Palestinian entity in exchange for a state of peace and more normal relations with Arab states. Security guarantees are also among the principles being discussed.
The Arab consensus that principles for a settlement should be agreed in advance reflects a growing belief among Arab leaders that the prospects for a settlement have worsened significantly since Begin's election. It also reflects a developing belief that an early deadlock at Geneva that led to collapse of the conference might have graver repercussions in the region than failure to go at all.
There is a division of opinion within the U.S. government about how hard to push for a Geneva conference without substantial advance agreements. Vance said yesterday he still believes and hopes that a Geneva conference can be held this year, but he warned that "too shallow a base" might court an immediate statement at a peace conference.
According to informed sources, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat recently informed other Arab leaders that he is less enthusiastic about a Geneva conference than in the past. Sadat had been the most eager advocate of such a meeting.
Sadat's shift of views appears to explain his increased emphasis on advance preparations, including his much-publicized but ill-fated "working group" proposal and a statement last Tuesday that unless there is good preparation, "it may be useful not to convene [a Geneva conference] at all."
Syrian President Hafez Assad and Jordan's King Hussein are reported to agree that there is not much point in going to a Geneva conference with Israel unless there are solid prospects for success based on a general acceptance of the principles for a settlement.
Assad recently passed the word to Western diplomats that time is less important to him than principle. He told Arab diplomats that "We can wait 109 years" if necessary for Israel to return occupied land such as the West Bank and expressed confidence that the Arabs will eventually have their way.
Hussein, in a press conference this morning said, "We have always had a feeling that we could not afford a failure" in a Geneva conference. "Certainly three must be some understanding of the principles on which we are going to base our talks and discussions at Geneva" if they are to be a success, he said.
Hussein said he is "encouraged" and "cautiously optimistic" as a result of two days of talks with Vance because "we are not talking vaguely" or "just going around in circles" as in the past, but addressing the substance and specifies of a potential settlement. Vance has said repeatedly that he has spent most of his time with Arab leaders on substantive rather than procedural issues.
There has been considerable coordination of Arab views, to some extent under the sponsorship of Saudi Arabia, including meetings of major leaders in recent weeks and lengthy correspondence among Arab leaders about their individual talks with Vance.
There are still important differences between Arab ideas for a statement of principles for Geneva that might be announced by the United States or adopted by the United Nations if agreement with Israel can be reached. There are also Arab objections to parts of specific U.S. proposals presented by Vance for final terms of settlement, such as phased withdrawals and the nature of security arrangements.
On the broad issues involved in a statement of principles, here is where the United States and the Arabs appear to stand:
TERRITORY - The United States has favored Israel's return to its 1967 borders with minor modifications, close to the general Arab position of complete withdrawal. The late President Lyndon Johnson stated the U.S. position in letters to Arab leaders shortly after the 1967 war and this has been reiterated many times, Arabs sources said.
PALESTINIANS - President Carter has callef for creation of a Palestinian homeland or entity, preferably linked with Jordan. The Arab countries back a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with a corridor across Israel between them.
Sadat has suggested that leaders of a future palestinian state work out a link with Jordan before proposed that Palestinians on the West Bank be given a vote "under conditions of freedom" about whether to be independent, linked with Jordan or reincorporated into Jordon.
PEACE - Carter has called for a full peace" with Israel including Arab agreements on trade, travel and diplomatic relations. The Arabs generally agree to "end the state of war" and accept Israel's existence within its pre-1967 borders, but balk at early diplomatic relations or written agreements on trade or travel. Vance said he has seen some movement in the Arab position on this point.
Israel under Begin takes the view that territorial concessions should be discussed only at Geneva or on a bilateral basis with the Arabs. Begin is reported opposed to any return of territory on the West bank but ready for major return of Sinai land and some return on the Golan heights. Begin is strongly opposed to a Palestinian state, Israel's view on the nature of peace is close to that of the United States.