The Carter administration, frustrated in its latest attempt to resolve the deadlocked Middle East peace talks, is now debating internally whether to summon the leaders of Egypt and Israel to a repeat of the Camp David summit.
Diplomatic sources said yesterday that the failure of recent U.S. mediating efforts means the administration cannot delay much longer a decision on a new meeting of President Carter with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
No decision has been made yet, the sources stressed. But, they added, since lower-level diplomacy has been unable to break the Egyptian-Israeli impasses, the administration appears to have been left with only two options -- having Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance make another try at resolving the differences or taking them directly back to the summit.
Asked about these possibilities yesterday, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said, "We can't forecast the next stepse." But even his comments hinted strongly that direct talks on the ministerial or presidential level are under active consideration.
He conceded that the mission by Alfred L. Atherton Jr., the department's special Middle East envoy, had foundered on the refusal of each side to accept the other's proposals. The spokesman added:
"It now appears that all of the remaining issues are of such concern to the parties that it may not be possible to deal further with them separately. They may have to be discussed and resolved at the same tiem."
Then, when asked about possible new steps, the spokesman recalled a recent statement by President Carter in Atlanta. The president said that, if necessary, he would elevate the U.S. mediated peace effort to Vance's level or invite Begin and Sadat to meet with him again.
Hodding Carter also noted that Atherton had reported to Vance only yesterday and that considerable further discussion will be required before any course of action is decided.
He and other department officials pointed out that there in unlikely to be much opportunity for detailed discussion this week while the president, Vance and other top-level administration policy makers are preoccupied with the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping. But some sources said they expected the matter to get priority attention once the Teng visit is over.
At issue are negotiations on an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty to fulfill the agreement made at the Camp David summit last September. The peace talks began here in October but bogged down two months later in disagreements over several issues.
Chief among them is Israel's refusal to accept an Egyptian demand that the treaty be accompanied by a letter setting out a timetable and completion date for separate talks on establishing Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In addition, there are differences involving the draft treaty text's provisions for reopening the treaty to revision in the future and Egypt's reluctance to accept an article stating that the treaty takes precedence over its mutual defense pacts with other Arab countries.
Atherton went to Cairo and Jerusalem in an attempt to resolve these latter two points so that the sensitive issue of linkage to the Palestinian question could be addressed later. But, as Hodding Carter conceded yesterday, this two-tier approach failed.
In debating the best way to seek a comprehensive settlement of all the issues, sources said, the administration must consider a number of factors.
For one thing, they pointed out, any successful breakthrough will almost certainly require the direct participation of Begin and Sadat. If Vance undertakes a new mediating effort, that factor probably woudl oblige him to travel to the Middle East to consult with the two leaders.
However, he made an unsuccessful shuttle mission between Cairo and Jerusalem in December and is known to be reluctant to get involved in another such expedition. But his past effort to negotiate in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil also failed because they lacked the authority of Sadat and Begin.
For those reasons, the sources said, both the Israelis and Egyptians would prefer to bypass further talks at the ministerial level and go directly to a summit.
But the White House, aware that a summit failure would be a devastating political blow to President Carter, has been reluctant ot take that route without a much greater assurance than presently exists about the meeting's chances for success.