Administration officials chose to leave unresolved yesterday the diplomatic ambiguity surrounding the language on Palestinian rights which drew Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and President Carter together at the Aswan on Wednesday.
Artful ambiguity was a deliberate objective, U.S. sources conceded, for the American language which gave support to the rights of "the Palestinians to participate in the determination of their own future."
The semantic device enabled Sadat to claim that the United States has now gone considerably closer to embracing his insistance on a commitment to the Palestinian rights of "self-determination."
It also permitted Israeli Prime Minister Menabem Begin to claim that the United States fortunately stopped short of enfolding "self-determination." Said Begin, "To us, self-determination means a Palestinian state and we are not going to agree to any such mortal danger to Israel."
The contradictory interpretations by Sadat and Begin by no means dismayed Carter administration policy-makers. On the contrary, they were anticipated, and justified, on grounds that diplomacy often employs phrases that have different meanings for opposing sides, to cover gaps between seemingly unbridgeable positions.
But having overcome this semantic hurdle, administration officials acknowledge, the most difficult part of the diplomatic task still lies ahead, namely, how to translate precious phrasing into specific actions. As one U.S. official put it, "words by themselves are not the payoff - they are the symbols."
Sadat, for his political purposes, needed to show at Aswan that his policy was not at cross-purposes with American policy, as the result of President Carter's recent reiteration of opposition to an "independent Palestinian state." After the Carter statement at Aswan, Sadat exclaimed to reporters, "Our views were identifcal after our dialogue today."
But Sadat also riterated that the Palestinians must have "the right of self-determination and the right to establish their state." At one point Sadat even told an interviewer after Carter's departure that "President Carter has mentioned self-detemination."
In fact, "self-determination" was exactly what Carter was avoiding, as Sadat surely knew, in the carefully prepared statement that Carter read, in oreder to avoid the risk of misstating it extemporaneously.
It was precisely because "self-determination" has become a code term for an independent Palestinian state that the more ambiguous word, simply "determination," was put into Carter's statement.
American attempts to induce Israel to accept the "self-determination terminology previously have been blocked, notably during Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance's August trip to the Middle East. Subsequently, for example, on Nov. 2 before the World Jewish Congress in Washington, Carter used softer phraseology: To "provide the means for the Palestinian voice to be heard in the shaping of a Middle East peace . . ."
To this extent, therefore, Carter's language at Aswan represents a step closer to the basic. Arab demands. But it is not so close an to arouse Israeli alarm, even though Carter at Aswan also reiterated another code-phrase which the Israeli government rejects, recognition of "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
There are also differing American interpretations of how far Carter went at Aswan toward accommodating Sadat's language requirements.
An American source in Egypt was quoted on Wednesday as saying that Carter "came within a hair's breadth" of calling for Palestinian self-determination. However, Secretary Vance, in Paris Wednesday night, gave a quite guarded interpretation of the Carter statement, presumably to avoid jarring the Israelis.
Vance told NBC television commentator John Chancellor:
"The problem's a very, very complex one . . . because there are a number of parties involved. The Palestinians must participate in determining their future because it's their future at stake.
"On the other hand, the Israelis have an interest in this question and the Jordanians have an interest in this question. So that when one talks about participation we're talking about the process in which all three of the interested parties to that question have a chance to participate."
"Indeed," Vance asked, "one can say there's four parties because when you get to the question of Gaza the Egyptians also have an interest in it."
In sum, the fine shadings of diplomatic verbiace that are now receiving extraordinary public attention are susceptible to multiple meanings.
The United States is leaning first on one side, then on another, to edge forward a process in which both Israel and Egypt must make compromises in order to move toward a peace settlement. Elliptical language is just one of the important devices in the diplomatic process. If Sadat, for example, is content to settle for the present degree of ambiguity on "determination," to help produce the sought-after "general agreement on principles" between Egypt and Israel, the task of American diplomacy will be greatly eased.
At the ultimate stage of a Palestinian settlement, however, word-bridges alone will not saffice, a U.S. diplomat noted yesterday, for eventually "someone has to say, 'What do the words really mean.'"