Exactly one month before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat called his envoys back to Cairo to halt the Jerusalem peace talks, the warning that failure loomed was sounded during Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin's visit to Washington.
The warning took this form: an extremely clever and largely successful political ploy by Begin during his Dec. 16 trip here to show that he had won Persident Carter's total support for the Israeli response to Sadat.
That set off alarm bells that the President muted in hopes of an intervening miracle. His hope: that the old militant Zionist Menahem Begin, achieving power late in life, had become a crusader for peace. Events since than suggest that, whether befause of domestic politics, inflexibility or ulterior motive, he is the same old Begin.
After long talks with Carter a month ago, Begin addressed his Parliament Dec. 28. In that speech, he referred to the American leaders "who praised our peace plan as fair, as constructive, as a breakthrough." He claimed the "massive moral support" of the administration and congressional leaders in both parties.
Carter was pressed hard by Begin to give just such a glorious - though unrealistic - appraisal of Begin's peace plan. The Presdient wisely refused.
Insteand, deeply disappointed by what Begin was offering Sadat, Carter actually gave the lowest possible response he could conceive: Begin's plan was a "constructive" start for negotiations. The State Department later passed word to its diplomats that the Israeli offer responding to Sadat's courageous trip to Jerusalem should be described as "a good beginning."
Thus was Carter served notice of what Begin intended. Begin's "good beginning" was also his end - positions adhered to ever since and with a rising harshness or rhetoric.
Begin's harsh words transformed Sadat's dream for a quick, sweeping peace into a nightmare of haggling over procedures, formulas and agendas. It was Sadat's hope to escape such tortuous negotiating tactics that drove him to Jerusalem.
No Carter administration expert understimates Begin's political problems within his own hawkish Herut Party, the main component of Israel's governing coalition. Suggesting even modest concessions to Sadat lost Begin a long-time political intimate, Shmuel Katz, and sacrificed support from the fanatical religious group called Gush Emunim and some religious factions in Parliamant.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials recently started worrying that Begin was using these potentially serious cracks in his political alliance as a pretext for inexcusable negotiating positions.
Some officials here were angered by Begin's hard statement early this week that Israel would never yield on Jewish "settlements" - actually good-sized towns - in the Eqyptain Sinai conquered by Israel in 1967. Such a slap in Sadat's face was perceived by them as a calculated humiliation of Sadat. Other officials felt it also meant Begin feared to persuade his country to accept the kind of peace Sadat offered and deliberately courted failure.
This view was strengthened when Begin delivered his insensitive toast at the Jan. 17 state dinner in Jerusalem for the Egyptian peace delegation. It was the second time Begin had used a formal social occasion to compare the Palestine Liberation Organization (entirely cut out of the current talks) to "Nazi murderers." It seemed deliberately intended to affront the Egyptians.
Such language added to growing signals that Begin was courting failure in the most hopeful peace opportunity ever offered since the birth of Israel.
An earlier sign was Begin's insistence on calling the West Bank of Palestine by the biblical names "Samaria" and "Judea" - thereby claiming its historical link to Israel - in writing the agenda for the Jerusalem talks. Only a threat by Carter to boycott the talks brought Begin around, permitting an agenda to be inscribed.
For Sadat, the Jerusalem breakup holds unknown dangers of a wesome dimension. But for Begin it poses at least a slim possibility that the 30-year love affair between the United States and Israel will enter a slight cooling period. That danger might giver sophisticated Jewish leaders and pro-Israeli politicians here a chance to convince Begin that Sadat's diplomatic demands do not carry such fearsome dangers for Israel's security.
Rep. Clement Zablocki (D-Wis.), who as chairman of the House International Relations Committee has never deviated from support for Israel, confided to an Israeli official in Jerusalem this week, "Israel has not yet responded to Sadat." Now, for the time being at least, there is nothing left to respond to.