During most of 1977, President Carter's favorite formula for resolving the endless Arab-Israeli conflict was a revival of the Gevena peace conference that was aborted in 1973. The way things are going, he may yet get his wish.
In the wake of the deadlock between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, there are new stirrings of interest in the Geneva approach. Significantly, they are cropping up in Palestinian and allied Arab quarters which, in the past, have blown hot and cold on the idea.
For the time being, the Carter administration is committed to getting the Egypt-Israel bilateral negotiations back on the track, but if the stalemate persists the White House undoubtedly would welcome a back-to-Geneva movement.
In the rush of events that followed Sadat's dramatic journey to Jerusalem Nov. 19, has generally been forgotten to what lenghts President Carter went last year, prior to the Egyptian leader's preemptive initiative, to revive the Geneva parley under the joint auspices of the United States and The Soviet Union.
But Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian liberation chief, has not forgotten. Like other Arab leaders, he has never believed that Sadat could possibly achieve a "comprehensive" agreement that would be acceptable to other Arabs in the Mideast. Now that these doubts seems to have been confirmed, Arafat has just come forth with his first concrete suggestion to how to resume the search for peace. The answer, he says, is to be found in the U.S.-Soviet declaration of last Oct. 1, which gave new life to the Geneva approach.
In Syria, the semi-official paper Al-Thawra charged that Egypt's unilateral actions caused serious damage by obstructing the road to Geneva "where serious negotiations could take place under international supervision."
In Jordan, the mass media has also consistently called Sadat's initiative a failure. King Hussein, the Middle East Intelligence Survey reports, has expressed doubts as to whether the United States was the only power capable of bringing peace to the region, and he "demands the participation of the U.S.S.R. in the negotiations." Meanwhile, the government press is demanding the participation of "all sides concerned in a comprehensive solution" - meaning a renewd Geneva conference.
What sticks in the craw of Sadat's Arab critics is his pretension to speak and negotiate not just for his own country, but for his former allies as well. In their eyes he has no mandate to seek a "comprehensive" solution. Actually, since the Egyptian president went to Jerusalem, some offended Arabs have made it plain that they would welcome his overthrow or even assassination.
In the circumstances, it has never been realistic to believe Sadat could end up with anything beyond a separate, bilateral peace agreement with Israel. From the first, other Arab governments, notably Syria, have suspected that Sadat's seeming insistence on a comprehensive agreement was mostly for show, and that he ultimately would settle for a separate deal that would satify Egypt's requirements.
Syria's foreign minister has accused Sadat of "arrogance." He contends the Egyptian leader is not really interested in Palestine, but dreams "of a position that would transfer him to an all-African rather than an Egyptian role." Syria, he added, would not join in a future Arab summit conference in which Sadat participated, because it is opposed "to the exploitation of the Arab nation as a cloak for criminal schemes seeking to harm her sons and her honor."
Faced with such hostility and the prospect of a reconvened Geneva conference, where he would not be the dominant figure he is now, Sadat may yet agree to a bilateral pact with Israel that would at least make him a hero in his own country.
The White House could do worse than encourage such a step, for in the long run a series of separate Arab agreements with Israel may be the most practical, if not the only, way to attain peace for the whole region.
Ever since the founding of Israel and the 1948 war that followed, there has been continuous talk about a comprehensive settlement, but in practise most of the peace in the region has come from separate agreements, and in each instance it was Egypt that broke the ice.
Thirty years ago, after deciding to go it alone, it took the Egyptians only six weeks to negotiate an armistice with Israel, and soon thereafter Jordan, Lebanon and Syria also signed separate agreements.
In 1975, after the Yom Kippur war, Egypt again went its own way and, despite Arab criticism, accepted an interim peace agreement with Israel. The chief critic, Syria, soon followed suit.
If Egypt, by far the largest Arab power, should once more come to terms independently with Israel, logic suggests that the other concerned nations sooner or later would have little choice but to do likewise.