IS IT NOW SAFE to hope that Israel and Egypt can go ahead and conclude a peace treaty? That would seem to follow from Israel's decision to accept the American-sponsored draft that it rejected four weeks ago. At that time, the preamble's "linkage" between an Egyptian-Israeli treaty and negotiations on West Bank-Gaza autonomy seemed to some Israeli cabinet ministers too explicit. In fact, the language reflected precisely the careful ambiguity of the Camp David accords; it balanced off Egypt's need to assure its Arab allies that it was not bargaining for itself alone and the Israelis' need for assurance that, as Predident Carter said in remarks excerpted For the Record on this page today, they "retain an option on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza."
Only when Egypt, responding to the Israeli cabinet, countered with its own unacceptable departures from the Camp David accords - a demand for a time-table for West Bank and Gaza autonomy and for an Egyptian presence in Gaza - did the Israelis realize they had overstepped. They now wish to turn back the clock to the American draft. President Sadat, we trust, will do the same.
In suggesting the other day that the Camp David accords might have to be modified, President Carter added a condition: "if both sides agree." Otherwise, he said, "we will insist that those accords be honored meticulously." Frankly, we doubt the two sides will soon agree on modifying the accords. Even if an agreed defect - say, an oversight - were detected (and none has been), making a change would conjure up a twin specter of revision and unraveling. The political implications would be too overwhelming.
But if the accords are not to be changed, they must indeed be "honored meticulously." The Israelis, by attempting to loosen the linkage between an Egyptian-Israeli treaty and West Bank-Gaza negotiations, raised suspicious that they were trying to back out of what to Egypt was the fundamental tenet negotiated at Camp David. Tending to confirm those suspicions was Prime Minister Begin's call at the same time to "thicken" Israel's West Bank settlements. This move, coming just as Israel was complaining that Jordan and West Bankers were holding themselves aloof from the Camp David process, suggested to many Arabs, and others, that some Israelis wished to encourage the Jordanians and West Bankers to do precisely that.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians, by trying to write a specific West Bank-Gaza timetable into their treaty with Israel, aroused fears that they were trying to back out of what to Israel was the basic point of Camp David. The Israelis are determined to cement a peace treaty with the one Arab neighbor that will now deal with them. With reason, they fear that to hinge a treaty with Egypt on specific steps they must take with Arabs who refuse to deal with them is to give radical Palestinians a veto over the Egyptian treaty. Egypt could yet, after a treaty, decline to put some of its diplomatic provisions into effect. That is Egypt's leverage on a resolution of the Palestinian issue; Israel's leverage lies in its physical occupation of the West Bank and Gaza territories.
The roller coaster of recent weeks should have reminded even the most optimistic well-wishers of the Arab-Israeli peace process how easy it is to fall off. The rail to hold to, however, is Camp David. It was a brilliant achievemnet, particulary in its distinctions between what could be decided now (the Sinai) and what had to be left for settlement over time (the West Bank and Gaza). Brilliance aside, it represented an agreement and commitment between two countries with a powerful - and mutual - interest in making peace.