THE JOUSTING between Israel and Egypt over the "linkage" issue is becoming more than a little tiresome, even when one takes into account that the two countries are novices at the business of talking peace. The negotiators on both sides have shown themselves competent to discharge their respective instructions in order to reach agreement on a draft text, but no sooner do they do that than the instructions seem to come unhooked back in the home capital and the draft is washed out. And while the responsibility is not always easy to fix in these situations, and certainly cannot be plunked down all in one place, there is little doubt in our minds that most of the trouble is coming from the Israeli side.
The issue itself is simple enough. At Camp David, both countries explicitly accepted a commitment to go on after writing their own peace treaty, to negotiate a peace treaty for the West Bank and Gaza. A few weeks ago their negotiators agreed on a specific formula, to be written into the Egyptian-Israeli treaty draft, to make good on this vital Camp David commitment. Prime Minister Begin then encountered some political flak. Rather than fight it out, he instructed his negotiators to loosen up the negotiated language. That got Egypt's back up and a demand for tighter language promptly issued forth from Cairo. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance waded in over the weekend to present a new formula, but by yesterday the atmosphere had heated up enough to lead both Israel and Egypt to recall key members of their negotiating teams from Washington.
Now, Israel and Egypt made a solemn commitment at Camp David and we do not suspect that either is going back on it. But only a very foolish person would maintain that the process gotten into gear at Camp David is immune to accidents and political foibles. The greatest concentration and skill are required to keep the process from bogging down. These qualities have not been uniformly in evidence, particularly on the Israeli side. Mr. Begin, who showed himself in the Sinai settlements vote in the Knesset to be in a brilliant and courageous political leader, has shown since a tendency to use the objections raised by his right as reasons or pretexts to demand deflecting changes in the negotiations. It is the Knesset standard to which he must return.
There is a deeper lesson here. Nothing has troubled Israelis more than Mr. Sadat's occasional tendency to reverse field and take off the table things he had previously put on. Now Israel seems to be engaging in the same tactic. It is a corrosive tactic, destructive not only of momentum but of trust, no matter which side uses it. What is bad for the Egyptian goose is bad for the israeli gander, too.