Prime Minister Menachem Begin's acceptance of President Carter's urgent request for a meeting in Washington was made on the basis that specific impasses in Middle East peace efforts will not be negotiated, a source close to Begin said early today.
Begin agreed to travel to the United States Thursday for the talks with Carter -- only hours after turning down a Carter invitation to a summit including Egyptian representatives -- "because the president feels like talking, and he picked up the telephone and called the prime minister at his home," the Begin aide said.
"There was no mention of bringing in an Egyptian representative, so of course there will not be any negotiations on specific matters," the aide added. "If there were negotiations, then Egypt would be involved."
His comments indicated that the Israelis, like Carter in his news conference in Washington, were attempting to put the best face on what obviously is a difficult moment in efforts to turn the promise of Camp David into a peace agreement.
Although the aide said Begin and Carter "did not specify any agenda" for the meeting, there was little doubt that the two leaders planned serious discussions on the impasse in Israel's negotiation with Egypt.
Begin had said, in announcing his Cabinet's rebuff of the earlier summit invitation, that he was willing to meet Carter "at any time convenient" to discuss matters of mutual interest between Israel and the United States.
The Cabinet decision, backed by 14 of 16 voting ministers, threw into doubt the outcome of more than a year of peace negotiations that began with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit here in November 1977.
Although Begin attempted to cast the summit rejection in terms of rejecting substantial Egyptian proposals, the decision clearly reflected government pique over the form of the first U.S. invitation. It also appeared designed to force Sadat's hand in making concessions, or at least attending a summit himself rather than designating a subordinate.
Carter, apparently at Sadat's bidding, had intended to pair Begin, who is Israel's head of government, with Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil, who technically also ranks as head of government but does not not have Begin's policy-making clout.
The Cabinet vote, which followed nearly five hours of intensive closeddoor debate, seemed to sink hopes that the last unresolved issues in the Camp David peace talks could be quickly settled. The White House had been preparing for a second summit meeting to be held as early as Thursday in Washington.
Only Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman voted against the Cabinet rejection. Dayan's vote raised questions about his future as chief Israeli peace negotiator. The foreign minister, according to informed sources, gave a vigorous argument in favor of Begin's participation in the summit.
It had been known that the Cabinet was divided over the question, with hawkish ministers vocally complaining about the "affront" of Carter's original invitation and the uselessness of holding the planned summit without the presence of Sadat. But the size of the Cabinet vote against Begin's participation surprised many observers.
Emerging grim-faced from the meeting, Begin told reporters that last week's ministerial-level peace talks at Camp David had resulted in "no progress" toward an Egyptian-Israeli agreement.
"On the contrary, a more extreme position was presented by the Egyptian delegation," Begin said. "In addition to the previous Egyptian proposals, which were unacceptable to Israel, new proposals were made which are inconsistent with [Camp David] and in fact nullify the meaning of the peace treaty between the two countries," the prime minister added.
Begin said that the Israeli delegation headed by Dayan had "put forward counterproposals which were rejected by the other side. Prime Minister Khalil insisted upon the Egyptian proposals referred to above."
Reading from his own handwritten notes, Begin added: "Under these circumstances, the Cabinet decided that the prime minister is not in a position to participate in the proposed meeting with Dr. Khalil."
A Begin aide who attended the meeting said the vote turned not only on what was perceived as "a question of honor," but on "an evaluation of the substance of Egypt's position."
"To be frank, some ministers did not conceal their lack of enthusiasm for the composition of the summit.But President Carter said he would call another summit if both sides showed flexibility, and the flexibility wasn't there in terms of the Egyptians," the aide said.
A Cabinet source said that Dayan and Weizman, while urging Begin to attend the summit, had expressed belief that Egypt had hardened its position.
The main obstacle, as all along, concerned linking a separate Egyptian-Israeli treaty to a resolution of the future of Palestinians on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and in Gaza, he said.
The other major unresolved issue, on which Israeli officials say Egypt has hardened its position, is a timetable for implementing autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Arabs.
It had been reported that both sides were close to agreeing on a target date for beginning autonomy, coupled with vague promises of "good faith" attempts to complete it. But more recent discussions appeared to have broken down over the issue.
One of Begin's aides, while insisting that "this is not for tactics -- this is real conviction," maintained at the same time that "there is not a deadlock and not a crisis."
Despite the plans for talks in Washington, the intensity of feeling here against Carter's handling of the negotiations suggested strain. Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon accused the United States of trying to distate peace terms to Israel, telling a group of Jewish settlers, "It's an unprecedented... vulgar and disgraceful attempt.
Parliament member Haim Druckman of the National Religious Party described the Carter invitation as "a military order to report for duty that has arrived via the news media.
Picking up on that theme, Israel's newspapers assailed Carter bitterly, with Mariv, the afternoon Hebrew daily, proclaiming in a banner headline: "Ultimatum!"
The newspapers also questioned Carter's logic, pointing out that if Begin and Khalil are parallel stature, then if President Sadat were to attend a summit Israel should be represented by President Yitzhak Navon, who fills a largely ceremonial function here.
Anti-American signs have begun cropping up here again with more frequency than they have in months. One, prominently displayed in downtown Jerusalem, reads: "For Sale: Israel. Price: Negotiable. Agent: Jimmy Carter. U.S.A."