The veneer of patience covering the tortuous Middle East peace negotiations has worn so thin that it is now transparent, exposing beneath it the frustrations of President Carter and his top aides.
While no Ameican official will say it bluntly for the record, it is also beyond question that the anger that frustration has produced is directed almost entirely at Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Israeli government.
It has been building for weeks as the euphoria over the Camp David summit conference's "frameworks" for peace gave way to negotiations over the details of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
It surfaced first a month ago when, during an interview on public television with Bill Moyers, the president complained about the talks becoming bogged down in "technicalities" and "legalisms" of "absolutely no historical significance." Then last week, Carter complained again about "quibbling" by both sides and said the United States would consider it a "very serious" matter indeed if the two sides continued to haggle beyond Dec. 17, the target date for reaching agreement on a peace treaty set in the Camp David accords.
The latest, and in some ways most illuminating, example of this growing frustration occured Wednesday night, at the unlikely setting of a dinner of the Business Council at the Mayflower Hotel.
The president addressed the assembled businessmen, speaking, predictably, about the economy and inflation, asking his audience for cooperation in fighting inflation in the coming months. Then he consented to answer a few questions. When one questioner asked for an assessment of the Middle East negotiations, Carter began by utering a warning to himself about the delicatre situation.
"I will try to be cautious [and] not say an inappropriate thing," he said.
What followed contained nothing "inappropriate" but much that was revealing about a president who three months ago appeared on the verge of pulling off what had eluded all of his predecessors-peace between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors.
After a mini-review of the history of the Mideast negotiations, the president said:
"It is extremely difficult, one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had in my life, to try to negotiate at long distance and through negotiators here who have limited and sometimes no authority, with the appeal going to the prime minister, then to the cabinet or going to the cabinet and then to the president, and with both sides excessively using the public news media to express their positions . . .
"This is what we have had to deal with. But there is a limited amount of time that Secretary [Cyrus R. Vance] can spend on the Mideast peace treaty, as important as it is.
". . . We have numerous other things, as you can well imagine, to do. And Secretary Vance and I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to bring these two nations together on differences that are almost completely insignificant compared to what they have already resolved."
Carter added the obligatory line that "both nations deserve a lot of credit." But at this point, that is just part of the veneer. Even before the Camp David summit conference, White House officials were saying privately that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had made most of the concessions up to that point and that Begin would have to give more.
Carter's expressed frustration over the post-Camp David process-how every piint go "to the prime minister and then to the cabinet"-was clearly directed at the Israeli government machinery. And lest there be any doubt about the time the president was speaking to the businessmen, an administration official sought out a reporter at a social function to suggest it be reported that, in the view of U.S. officials, Sadat had made all the compromises he reasonably could.
During a television interview with Barbara Walters on ABC last night, Carter expressed the same frustrations and suggested that he would view rejection of the latest proposal as a sign of Israeli intransigence.
Saying that "I personally don't see how this could be difficult for the Israelis," the president said the decision now "is primarily in the hands of the Israelis."
Asked if he considered Begin to be intransigent, Carter replied, "Well, we don't know what the Israeli response will be."
The president said U.S. policy toward Israel will not change even if the peace talks collapse. But he cautioned the Israelis that talk of establishing new settlements in occupied territories "really puts a damper on cooperation" in Congress.
At the White House yesterday, the Middle East dominated presidential press secretary Jody Powell's regular news briefing. Given the sensitivity of the situation, he did not care to be forthcoming. But when an Israeli reporter asked him whether Secretary of State Vance, in his trip to the Mideast this week, had taken to Jerusalem an essentially "take it or leave it" proposition, the press secretary sounded much like his frustrated boss the night before.
"God knows we've been negotiating," Powell said. "This has consumed more time than any other two or three matters-the unemployment of our citizens, the inflation that affects our citizens, the SALT [strategic arms limitation treaty] talks . . . "
And what happens if Sunday-the deadline set in the Camp David accords-passes and there is still no agreement, Powell was asked.
"I frankly don't know what will happen," he said. CAPTION: Picture, JODY POWELL . . . "this has consumed more time . . . "