Late last Tuesday night, after extensive talks with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Carter penned his own summary of Israeli policy on current issues of the Middle East peace process. Carter's conclusions, later checked with Begin, led to a confrontation between the two countries at the highest level.
Carter's notes, as read to two congressional committees at the White House and obtained by The Washington Post, make clear the presidential perceptions that underline the impasse with Israel's leader.
Begin's basic positions were wellknown to U.S. diplomats before the meeting that began Tuesday morning in the Cabinet Room. Until then, however, it was unclear, or at least ambiguous, whether these were bargaining postures from which retreat could be negotiated, or whether they represented Begin's bedrock policy.
As informed American officials tell it, last week's meetings eliminated any ambiguity and convinced Carter that, at least on the problem of the West Bank, Begin's views are an unshakable matter of deep conviction. Since these questions are seen as "absolutely fundamental" (in the words of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance), the inescapable U.S. conclusion is that peace progress is unlikely so long as Begin remains in power.
Publicly, the Carter administration has taken a hands-off policy about Israel's internal decision-making, with Vance and other officials strongly denying reports of a "dump Begin" drive from Washington. Privately, officials said that Israel's debate and decisions in coming weeks are crucial to the chances for a negotiated settlement with Egypt and other Arab states.
In the U.S. view, the collapse of the drive toward a Middle East settlement would be particularly tragic because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and other Arab leaders are showing greater flexibility in private than ever. This perception is behind two U.S. "assumptions" that were explained to Begin and were recorded in the notes Carter drew up Tuesday night.
The "assumptions" are that, despite some public statements to the contrary, total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would not be required in a final peace agreement and that no independent Palestinian state should be created. Carter reached these conclusions, according to authoritative sources, after long hours on the telephone as well as face-to-face conversations with Sadat and conversations with King Hussein of Jordan, Syrian President Hafez Assad and high officials of Saudi Arabia.
There is no contention that the Arabs have agreed on the extent of the potential deviation from the 1967 borders in the West Bank and Gaza. But the principle of willingness to negotiate some changes seems clear enough to informed American officials. Even clearer, they report, is the opposition to an unbridled Palestinian ministate that could be an extremist base against neighboring Arab countries as well as Israel.
Against this background Carter explored possibilities for compromise on the part of the Israelis Tuesday in a two-hour Cabinet Room meeting with Begin and his delegation, a family dinner of the two leaders and their wives in the White House living quarters and a private after-dinner chat.
As he sat down to review what he had learned, Carter is said to have been "very discouraged." As later read to members of the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his summation of the Israeli stand was extremely bleak. And it was all the more jarring for the legislators and others to learn that it had been read to Begin. The Israeli leader said he wished the conclusions could be stated more positively, but he did not object to them in substance, Carter reported.
According to the Carter summary, Begin is unwilling to cease settlement activity in the West Bank during active negotiations. Begin later made this clear in public statements Thursday, and hinted that new or expanded settlements might be authorized by his Cabinet soon.
The United States considers such Jewish enclaves in an area under military occupation illegal as well as harmful to negotitations; Begin maintains it is legal and proper for Jews to settle in "the land of their forefathers." The Israeli populace, measured by recent public opinion polls, is deeply split on the matter.
In the Sinai, Carter concluded that Begin will not give up the Jewish settlements along the Mediterranean coast near the approaches to the Gaza Strip, nor is Begin willing to accept an arrangement under which any force other than the Israeli army is responsible for their protection. Begin told the National Press Club Thursday that the settlements must be retained, possibly in a U.N. zone, as a vital matter of national security to control access to Gaza. Sadat has made clear he will not permit Israeli-controlled settlements on Egyptian soil.
On the central question of the West Bank, Carter concluded that Begin is not willing to withdraw even if allowed to keep Israeli security outposts. Such security outposts as well as U.N. buffer zones, demilitarized areas and U.S. security guarantees, including a possible U.S.-Israel defense pact, are among the range of exploratory ideas Carter put on the tabel - but Begin did not accept - in the White House talks.
The Labor governments that preceded Begin were willing to negotiate a withdrawal from at least part of the West Bank in keeping with the territory-for-peace bargain of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after the 1967 war. Begin is not, Carter's notes made clear.
Begin's plan, presented to the United States and then to Sadat in December, is for a form of civil "selfrule" for Palestinians in the entire West Bank and Gaza, while retaining Israeli military control of the entire area. Begin justified his plan in public speeches here on security grounds, but at other times he has made clear a lifelong belief that the West Bank belongs to Israel as a legacy of biblical times.
Finally, Carter noted that Begin is unwilling to permit limited self-determination for West Bank-Gaza Palestinians after an interim period. The choices would include affiliation with Jordan, affiliation with Israel, or continuation of an interim arrangement (probably of an international nature) - but they would not include an independent Palestinian state.
Sadat accepted the general principle of such a limited choice in his meeting with Carter at Aswan in January, and U.S. officials believe Hussein and other Arabs probably would accept the idea in a general settlement. But Begin maintained that despite assurances, any such choice would lead eventually to an independent state threatening Israel from the border of its heartland.
Begin repeated to Carter, according to U.S. sources, his public posture that "everything is negotiable except the destruction of Israel." But Carter concluded on the basis of thorough discussions - as recorded in his summary of the conversations - that Begin is unwilling to bend sufficiently for negotiations to succeed.