Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin are the odd couple of international diplomacy. One is engrossed in the great drama of historic gesture, the other obsessed by the small print.
Neither one is well suited for long, detailed negotiations on major themes. So what is now required for progress between Egypt and Israel is a return to quiet diplomacy on substantive issues by secondary figures.
President Sadat's flair for the historic gesture is well known. He demonstrated it in 1972 when, without getting anything in return, he gave the wet mitten to the vast number of Soviet military and technical advisers in Egypt. He did it again in the 1973 war, and once more in the visit to Jerusalem in November.
A lesser known, other side of these qualities is an impatience, an unwillingness to deal with the fine points of serious problems. Egyptians critical of Sadat believe a major reason for his trip to Jerusalem was simple boredom with the process of working out a Geneva conference.
The slow pace of the discussions following that trip also put him off. Indeed, it seems clear that he was not even paying much attention to the political talks between his own foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel, and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan. He broke off those talks, 10 days ago, without even realizing that on the day of the break the two foreign ministers and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had made genuine progress toward putting together an acceptable agenda.
Prime Minister Begin's obsession with words is equally well known. He has been a rallying point for Israelis at a time of trouble for Zionism precisely because of his literal belief in the Bible and God's promise of the Holy Land to the Jews.
By the same token, however, words have a meaning for him that they don't have for other people - especially Anwar Sadat. "Self-rule" in the West Bank means everything to Begin, but nothing to most Arabs who don't have self-rule in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Syria or any other country.
Similarly Begin took unnecessary umbrage when Kamel, arriving in Jerusalem for the opening of the political talks, asserted Egypt's demands for concessions to Syria on the Golan Heights and self-determination for the Palestinians on the West Bank. At a dinner that night, Begin likened self-determination for the Palestinians to the kind of "wonderful concept" that brought the world the slaughter of Jews by the Nazis in "the late '30s." The harsh tone used by Begin at a ceremonial occasion almost certainly touched off Sadat's decision to stop the foreign ministers' talks.
For the time being, at least, the lid has been put on the public temper tantrums of the two leaders. There is a kind of timeout in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, and the question is how to get them going again.
The first need is to prevent any more shouting matches. That means avoiding any further meetings at the summit, which only work to sow suspicion and misunderstanding.
Talks at the foreign minister level are more appropriate, especially since the tradition there is for secret diplomacy. It would probably be a good idea to move the site of the political negotiations from Jerusalem to Cairo, because that way Sadat will not be totally out of touch with what is going on. On the contrary, genuine benefits would flow from direct conversations between him and Dayan, the most supple and imaginative of the Israeli negotiators.
Finally, it seems necessary to dispel both Sadat's illusion that great gestures and Begin's illusion that fine words can yield peace. They cannot, in fact, produce even a statement of principles. What is required for agreed-upon principles on such touchy subjects as Israeli settlements and Palestinian rights are detailed substantive negotiations by skilled diplomats. The next phase of the talks, after the present timeout ends, ought to pick up at that point.
For the United States, that means a relatively low profile. This country should avoid having to play referee in the exchanges between the odd couple. President Carter and Vance both should lay off for the time being. If American help is required for a certain easing of tension, Assistant Secretary of State Alfred Atherton - a calm, cool professional with extensive knowledge of all the issues - is the perfect man for the job.