President Carter yesterday called Israel's refusal to make commitments about the future of occupied Arab territories "very disappointing," but said he still hopes "real progess" can be made toward Middle East peace in the coming weeks.
At a press conference, Carter said he had learned "not to be surprised by temporary setbacks," and added: "Our commitment to the policy of seeking a comprehensive and effective peace in the Middle East is constant and very dedicated. We will not back off on this."
But the president tempered his hopeful tone by stressing his dissatisfaction with Israel's reply to American attempts to speed up the peace talks. Using language that came close to sarcasm, he also criticized Israel's rejection Sunday of new Egyptian proposals on the occupied territories before they had even been formally presented.
Carter also used the press conference as a platform for continuing his effort to soften the harsh rhetorical exchanges that have caused tensions in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union during recent weeks.
The president said he believed that Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev wants friendship with the United states, that relations between the two countries are "stable" and that "there is no danger to peace."
In response to a longstanding Soviet concern reiterated by Brezhnev on Sunday, Carter asserted that U.S. pursuit of improved relations with China does not pose a threat to the Soviet Union.
"We are not trying nor will we ever try to play the Soviets against the Chinese nor vice versa," Carter said.
Although he briefly repeated recent U.S. criticisms of Soviet actions in Africa and on human rights. Carter seemed to be striving consciously for an upbeat note in his comments on the Soviet Union. He expressed optimism about the chances for a strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) agreement, applauded new Soviet proposals on troop reductions in central Europe and promised that the United States will not use trade as a weapon in dealing with Moscow.
These two foreign policy topics - the Middle East and U.S. relations with the Soviet and Chinese superpowers - occupied much of the questioning at the press conference; and, in his responses, Carter obviously was trying to turn aside the charges that have been made recently about confusion in his administration's policies.
In regard to the Middle East, he made no secret of his dissatisfaction at the response given by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government to U.S. requests for clarification on the future status of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Washington had been hoping that Israel, as a means of breaking the deadlock in the Middle East negotiations, would signal a willingness - at least in principle to eventually surrender control over these areas.
However, the Israelis simply side-stepped the issue and refused to go beyond their January proposal of limited, internal self-rule for the occupied territories, with Israel retaining responsibility for their security. That plan has been rejected by the Arab side as inadequate.
Before yesterday, the Carter administration's reaction to the Israel response - expressed only in unofficial terms - had been one of mild criticism. But the president minced no words in saying he thought the Israeli reply was "very disappointing."
He also chided the Israeli cabinet for its action Sunday in rejecting a suggestion by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that the West Bank and Gaza Strip be turned over to Jordan and Egypt, respectively. The Israelis called it an "unacceptable" precondition to reopening negotiations.
Carter said the Israelis had turned down "an Egyptian proposal that has not yet even been made." He added:
"It is not in final form. I understand. It certainly has not been presented to us to present to the Israelis. Yet it has already been rejected."
Despite the Israeli rejection, Carter added, the United States still plans to submit it to the Begin government on behalf of Sadat so that "both proposals, the Israeli proposal, the Egyptian proposal, will be on the table."
The president confirmed that efforts are under way to arrange a three-way meeting involving Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers in London or some other European capital early in July.
"It might be appropriate," Carter said, "if the Israelis and Egyptians agree, for a meeting between their foreign ministers, perhaps, and our own secretary of state. I would hope that at that point we could make real progress toward searching out the common ground on which they might stand and alleviating the differences that still remain.
"But," he warned, "I can't predict the rate of progress. It obviously will require good faith and some flexibility on both sides."
Carter's comments on the Soviet Union came when a reporters referred to Brezhnev's reference in a speech Sunday to the dangers of the United States trying "to play the chinese card" - pitting the Soviet and Chinese against each other.
With his voice dropping almost to an inaudible whisper, Carter spoke of the "worldwide common hopes that we share with the chinese . . . to have peace with the Chinese, almost a billion people."
"These are the goals that we have maintained during my own administration, the same identical goals that were evoked clearly by President Nixon and President Ford," he said.
But, Carter stressed, "We are not trying, nor will we every try, to play the Soviets against the Chinese, nor vice versa . . . We won't any temporary disharmonies or dispute about transient circumstances delay our pursuit of peace with the Soviet Union, nor our ability nor commitment toward better relationships with China."
Referring specifically to Brezhnev, Carter said: "Some of the things the Soviet do cause us concern . . . But I have a deep belief that the underlying relationship between ourselves and the Soviet is stable and that Mr. Brezhnev, along with myself, wants peace, and wants to have better friendship."
Asked about the possible use of trade as a lever in dealing with the Soviet, Carter rejected the idea of such a "linkage." He did note, thought, the recent arrest of an American businessman in Moscow and added:
"This kind of episode naturally causes concern among the American business community, which looks upon the Soviet Union as a good market. But we have never tried to threaten the Soviet Union, we have never held out the prospect of increased or decreased trade if they did or did not do a certain thing that we though was best."
In regard to the SALT negotiations, Carter took an especially optimistic tone. He said: "There is no cause for alarm . . . We are much closer to an agreement than we were a few weeks ago. We have made good progress."
He was similarly upbeat in discussing new Soviet proposals for the negotiations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact on reducing the levels of conventional weapons and forces in Central Europe. In these talks, Moscow recently has indicated a willingness to discuss the Western contention that since the Warsaw Pact has the greater forces, it should make proportionally greater reductions than NATO.
Until yesterday, Washington had reacted to these new proposals withcaution. But Carter, while stressing that problems remain over differing estimates of the size of Soviet forces, said:
"The Soviets, this past two weeks, replied in a very affirmative way . . . Brezhnev said this was a major reply on the part of the Soviet Union, and he thought we should assess it very carefully. So I would say it is a step in he right direction, and we will pursue it."