NOT EVEN THE FEVER of presidential ambition can redeem the irresponsibility, insensitivity and plain ignorance that the Senate Minority Leader brought to the delicate and difficult problem of Mideast peace in his address to the World Jewish Congress on Tuesday night. Leaving aside the feeble reach for The Historic utterance - "I do not want to see the United States ever try to buy peace by sacrificing Israel on the altar of American foreign policy" - Sen. Howard Baker's indictment of the Carter administration's Mideast policy centered on last month's joint Soviet-American invitation to a reconvened Geneva conference. Sen. Baker charged that, contrary to a U.S. commitment in 1975, Israel was not even consulted about it, which is not true. The consultation, in effect, may have been more in the nature of prior notice, since the Israelis flatly disagreed with the whole idea. But Israeli officials were at least given a chance to argue their case in advance. The senator said that the statement called for recognition of "the rights" of the Palestinian people, and that is also not true. The statement spoke carefully of "legitimate rights" of the Palestinian people, and while the meaning of that word will have to be worked out by the parties, it's inclusion makes a crucial difference.
And, finally, the senator would have us believe that, by this Soviet-American effort to find the highest common denominator of extremely general agreement on how to approach a comprehensive Mideast settlement, the United States had "reintroduced" a Soviet presence in that part of the world. "What possible advantage to the United States can there be in linking an invitation to renewed Soviet influence with the recovering of the Geneva peace conference?" he asked. The obvious answer is that the Soviets have never been out of the Mideast negotiating picture or robbed of influence if only because it is impossible to reconvene a Geneva conference without the Russians. Under the terms of a U.N. resolution, they are the co-chairman with the United States of the conference.
The real question, of course, is not whether the Russians will play a role in the settlement of the Mideast crisis, but how to encourage them to play a useful - or, at least, not a dangerously disruptive - role. And that, of course, is what the joint statement was all about. You can argue over its language, but only if you are prepared to acknowle the Soviet demands that were negotiated out of it, as well as what went into it at American insistence, and to recognize how little it commits the United States, in any case, to "an imposed solution" or any preconception of what the final settlement should be. You can also argue over the wisdom of trying to get to Geneva too fast. A respectable case can be made that the time is not yet ripe and that the proper course is to pick up the Kissinger step-by-step approach in search of new and strictly limited disengagements. That, in fact, is more or less where Sen. Baker came down. And that is also where the Carter administration may wind up.
But to suggest that the alternative course of trying to move directly to Geneva, with Soviet concurrence, "changes sharply the direction of American policy" is to betray a curious unfamiliarity with recent history. A reconvening of the Geneva fonference was the last administration's stated aim, if not as a first step, certainly as the logical consequence of the interim accords achieved in 1975. To imply, as the senator surely did, that there is some sort of Soviet-Arab-American conspiracy to rush to Geneva at Israelis, as President Carter reminded that same conference a day later, have already "accepted the idea of comprehensive negotiations at Geneva," have also agreed to negotiate "without preconditions" - and have indicated a readiness to deal with a "a unified Arab delegation which will include Palestinians."
We do not know whether it is true, as Mr. Carter also told the conference Wednesday night, that "we may be facing now the best opportunity for a permanent Middle East peace settlement in our lifetime." But we would not quarrel with the bottom line of his unblinking and restrained progress report - that "an unprecedented and concerted effort to resolve deep-seated differences" is in train. For the Senate Minority Leader to assert that the move toward Geneva could in any way justify an assumption that the United States is "casting aside the the only democratic state in the Middle East" is to play fast and loose with the anxieties of an audience understandably fine-tuned to the first hint of wavering in this country's fundamental commitment to the security of Israel.