The Carter administration has abandoned hope for moving in tandem with the Soviet Union toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement any time in the near future, officials now privately acknowledge.
As a result of the audacious diplomatic blitz conducted by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the United States has shifted instead to a three-stage policy of supporting overlapping country-by-country peace accords. Only in the final stage, if that point is ever reached, would American and Soviet policy converge again, to put a stamp of approval on an overall Arab-Israeli peace settlement at a Geneva conference.
The American and Soviet strategies both have been overtaken, senior U.S. officials acknowledge, by Sadat's plunge into direct negotiations with Israel, his break with the most militant Arab nations, and his outright defiance of the Soviet Union, which supports them.
New information can now be pieced together about the extraordinary developments set in motion by Sadat during the past month.
Despite initial hesitation and internal debate about the Sadat initiatives American officials now say the Carter administration is "not uncomfortable at all" about the turnabout.
This is a major reversal of the direction in which the United States and the Soviet Union were headed in their highly controversial Oct. 1 accord on setting joint guidelines for a Geneva conference. That declaration brought an uproar in Israel, and in Congress, on grounds that it unwisely brought the Soviet Union back into the middle of Middle East displomacy.
Administration strategists now say that it was never their "preferred outcome" to "cut the Russians in" on Arab-Israeli diplomacy, if the protagonists would bargain together on their own.
The Soviet Union is outraged, or at least it professes outrage. It charges the United States, Egypt and Israel with conspiring in "a plot to foil a officials deny they plotted anything. They insist it was Sadat's strategy, not theirs, which leaves the United States in a supporting role inside a diplomatic pattern which Egypt and Israel now dominate, with the Soviet Union, outside, crying "foul."
"The Russians excluded themselves," one senior U.S. official said dryly: "all they had to do was ante up a little and they could have played poker."
American policy is now pointed in the following three-stage direction, dubbed the strategy of "concentric circles" by presidential national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski:
1. Support for an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement, which would be linked to -
2. An accord among Israel, "the moderate Palestinians" and Jordan on a settlement covering the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. This accord is intended to dispose of "the Palestinian question."
3. At a subsequent stage - if obtainable - an Israeli-Syrian peace accord wrapped into a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. This could be confirmed with Soviet participation at a Geneva conference, with American and Soviet guarantees for the overall settlement.
Whether this triple formula will materialize is beyond anyone's ability to forecast, administration officials say. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance is now making a round of Middle East capitals to rally support for keeping these options open.But the control of the process has passed to other nations, notably Egypt, Israel and enormously rich Saudi Arabia.
In, and behind, the formal Egyptian-Israeli negotiations which begin in Cairo on Wednesday. Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin will decide, in the first instance, whether the Sadat initiative survives or collapses. The United States, inside and outside the conference, will be maneuvering as best it can to facilitate a success. As for the Soviet Union, now doubly stung by the shift of American strategy and Sadat's closure of Soviet consulates and cultural centers last week, it is hoping for a diplomatic disaster in Cairo to bring it back into the center of the action.
What Sadat set in motion leapfrogged everyone else's objectives.
Before making his sensational visit to Jerusalem last month, Sadat has newly disclosed, he secretly proposed an even more spectacular bid to break out of the "visious circle" of diplomatic maneurering over an Arab-Israeli settlement.
As Sadat describes it, "my first initiative" was a super-summit in Jerusalem of the leaders of the world's "big five" nations: President Carter, Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, China's Hua Kuo-feng, French President Valery Giscard d'Estang and British Prime Minister James Callaghan.
The improbability of assembling those leaders in a joint venture, especially ideological arch-rivals Brezhnev and Hua, evidently did not daunt Sadat at first. The idea, however, indicates how desperate Sadat was to break out of the Arab-Israeli stalemate. And it also suggests one of the reasons why Carter administration strategists were so wary about where Sadat was headed when he first proposed the Cairo conference as a "preparatory meeting" for a Geneva conference.
For it was the Cairo conference proposal, far more than the Sadat leap into Jerusalem, which forced Amerian and Soviet strategists to make specific diplomatic choices. It was this decision on which the United States broke with the Soviet Union.
Sadat, in a masterful exploitation of public relations, loaded that decision in his own favor, especially where the United States was concerned. Although some commentators have described what happened in Jerusalem last month and immediately afterward as American television exploitation of Sadat and Begin, the reality unquestionably was the other way around. Sadat proudly calls it his "electric shock" strategy.
By flooding American and world television with appealingly sympathetic interviews in which he dramatically portrayed himself as the champion of peace. Sadat in a matter of days captured the overwhelming admiration of the American, the Israeli and - by no means least of all the Egyptian public. Even former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, in his prime, never achieved comparable world impact so swiftly.
A recent public opinion poll by Louis Harris, commissioned by ABC News, shows that Americans, by a [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Sadat had been apprehensive from the outset about a Soviet role in a Geneva conference. In Jerusalem he told Israeli officials he expected the Soviet Union to obstruct his objectives unless he could go to Geneva with an agreement virtually in hand.
As a result, Sadat could not have been surprised that the Soviet Union rejected his conference in Cairo. Syrian and the Palestine Liberation Organization, who rely on the Soviet Union for support, already were on record against Sadat's overtures to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon were dangling between.
That left the decisive choice to the United States. And Sadat, to maintain his momentum, gave the Carter [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] or "more positively, to engage in shaping the process." The latter course was chosen.
One suggestion, by Brzezinski was to send Vice President Mondale to the Middle East to try to rally support for the Cairo talks; another was to send Vance to Moscow. Instead. Under Secretary of State Philip C. Habib was dispatched to Moscow, and Vance to the Middle East. And in Moscow, the Soviet Union vented its indignation on Habib.
The United States is now committed to a course in the Middle East which neither it nor the Soviet Union can control. Sadat's tour de force has succeeded spectacularly - up to now, when Begin and Sadat will determine their mutual fate.