One of the two accords signed at the Camp David summit - the agreement on Sinai - is clear and easily workable. The other - concerning the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - is muddy and perhaps unworkable.
So connecting the two operationally is a recipe for double failure, and the Israelis are right to want to avoid tight linkage. But as a mark of her good faith, Israel ought to be making some unilateral concessions on the West Bank and Gaza.
Implicitly, to be sure the two agreements are linked. They were both worked out at Camp David by the same people at the same time. They were signed by both President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel. They comprise a package deal, and the plain spirit of the package is that Israel - with due allowance for security - withdraw from occupied territory in favor of Arab authorities.
But the two accords were not made conditional one upon the other. For very good reason. While similar in spirit, they are as different as the sea and the desert in detail and feasibility.
The Sinai accord is a straightforward bilateral deal between the two parties primarily concerned. The Israelis withdraw completely from the territory they occupied in the Six-Day War of 1976. In return the Egyptians sign a peace treaty and accord diplomatic recognition. Apart from Egypt and Israel, no other parties are centrally involved.
The accord on the West Bank and Gaza provides for the eventual "autonomy" of the two territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war but mainly Palestinian Arab in population. The Palestinian Arabs, who are obviously central to the agreement, however, were not represented at Camp David. They have tended to oppose rather than approve the accord.
King Hussein of Jordan, the former ruler of the occupied West Bank territories, was asked to enter into the accord. But he also was not represented at Camp David, and he also has tended to look on the accord with disfavor.
Apart from exciting the opposition of principal parties, the accords on the West Bank and Gaza are loaded with vague phrases bound to yield different interpretations. Nobody is exactly sure what "autonomy" means. Nor is it clear what conditions govern the establishment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Not surprisingly, the negotiations following up the Camp David meeting made rapid progress on the Sinai agreement and had only slow going on the accord for the West Bank and Gaza. Many Arabs and some Americans became suspicious that the Israelis would first make a separate peace with Egypt in the Sinai deal, and then stall forever on the West Bank and Gaza.
Accordingly the Egyptians proposed various linkages between the Sinai agreement and the West Bank and Gaza accord. Among other things they want elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza nine months after the signing of the Sinai treaty. The United States has tended to back the Egyptian position, suggesting that there be a year instead of nine months between the treaty signing and the elections.
Prime Minister Begin has now rejected the Egyptian proposals, and called for a compromise built around general language stipulating linkage in a preamble to the Sinai treaty. The prospect now is for another set of meeting in Washington to remodel the original Camp David accords.
I think the Israelis are right to reject operational linkage. Any provision which makes the execution of one accord depend upon the execution of the other puts an ax in the hands of dedicated wreckers. The Arabs who rejected the Camp David accords, notably the Palestinian Liberation Organization, can easily sabotage progress on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In that case both agreements would fail.
But if the Israelis are right to resist operational linkage, the Egyptians and Americans have at least some reason to doubt Israeli good faith in Gaza and the West Bank. Mr. Begin's own Herut Party, as the demonstrations against him Sunday indicated, opposes the present arrangements on Gaza and the West Bank on the grounds they might lead to a Palestinian state. Most of the other parties in the cabinet and the Labor opposition share these feelings.
Given those doubts, it is incumbent upon Israel to give some gauges of good faith. The way to do that is to take some unilateral steps - regrouping and withdrawing forces, for example - to show she is serious about commitments made regarding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That way, a compromise could be struck preserving what is truly most essential at this time - which is getting the Sinai treaty signed as soon as possible.