President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, in a move to circumvent the main stumbling block to reconvening Middle East peace talks, had proposed that the Palestinians be represented at Geneva by an American university professor of Palestinian origin.
Sadat said the proposal, which was sent to President Carter, had been endorsed by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The White House refused to make any substantive comment on Sadat's remarks to a group of American congressmen visiting Cairo yesterday.
Israeli officials also declined immediate comment on the proposal, saying that is is being studied. They reiterated Israel's position that a Palestinian delegate would be acceptable to them at Geneva as long as he did not belong to, or represent, the PLO.
Sadat did not mention any names. But Arab sources here suggested three prominent Americans of Palestinian descent as possible candidates. Two of them are members of the Palestine National Council, a 179-member body which includes representatives of all Palestinian guerilla organizations operating in Lebanon and Syria as well as of West Bank Palestinian groups.
The Council, which is regarded as the equivalent of a parliament in exile is dominated by the PLO, however.
The name most frequently mentioned was that of Ibrahim Abu Lughod, 48, professor of political science at Northwestern University.
Abu Lughod, a native of Jaffa, has lived in the United States since 1949. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and has authored or co-authored three books about the Middle East. He is close to Arafat and is a member of the Palestine National Council. Ironically, Lughod's wife is the former Janet Lippman of Chicago, who si Jewish.
Another U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent who was mentioned as a possible candidate is Edward W. Said, 42, a native of Jerusalem who was educted at Harvard and Columbia and served on the faculties of both universities. He is currently a professor of literature at Columbia and is also a member of the Palestine National Council.
Also mentioned was Hisham Sharabi, who is on the faculty of Georgetown University and also edits the Journal of Palestine Studies. Sharabi is not a member of the Palestine council, however.
The question of who should represent the Palestinians at the proposed Geneva conference has been the core of the problem in current U.S. diplomatic efforts to get the peace talks started. Israel, under servere American pressure, has accepted the notion of a Palestinian voice at Geneva but has rejected negotiations with PLO guerrilla leaders.
Sadat told the U.S. congressmen yesterday, "I have solved this problem for Israel. What about representing the Palestinians with an American professor of Palestinian origin? Would you or Israel consider him a terrorist? I have agreed with Arafat and sent this (proposal) to President Carter."
The Egyptian leader, obviously aware of the publicity value of his proposal, added, "Sensational, this!"
Yesterday's disclosure comes after an exchange of statements by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin on the need to end the state of war in the Middle East.
Arab diplomatic sources said they expected Carter to urge Israel to accept Sadat's proposal which could conceivably open the way for the Geneva peace conference before the end of the year.
The Carter administration has been pushing for the reconvening of the conference in December. Even if accepted by Israel, the Sadat proposal would resolve only a procedural problem without bridging the chasm on substantive matters between Israel and the Arabs.
The Palestine National Council's fundamental political commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state runs directly counter to Israel's vigorous objections to an independent Palestine.
The Palestinian council has recently moderated its position by saying that the state could be established on "any part" of the national Palestinian homeland, presumably an oblique indication that it accepts the existence of Israel and would be satisfied with a state on the occupied West Bank. The rhetoric of the PLO, which dominates Palestinian politics, still includes references to the destruction of Israel, however.