President Carter, seeking to prevent collapse of the proposed new Camp David summit, said yesterday that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin will come here Thursday "for a frank discussion" of the problems blocking agreement on an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
The president, grim-faced and obviously concerned, announced the hastily arranged meeting at a news conference only hours after the Israeli cabinet stunned the administration by rejecting Carter's invitation for Begin to confer with him and Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil at Camp David.
Calling conclusion of the long-deadlocked peace negotiations "an urgent necessity," Carter said he will meet with Begin alone. The president said he then would consider whether to ask Khalil or Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to join them in further discussions. Israel's spurning of the summit was prompted, in part, by the reluctance of Sadat, Egypt's top leader, to attend. In addition, the Israeli cabinet, referring to the ministerial talks at Camp David last week, charged that "no progress" was made and that Khalil made new proposals which "nullify the meaning of a peace treaty."
In response, Carter asserted at his news conference that "some progress was made" at last week's Camp David sessions. He added: "I do not share the opinion that the proposals we put forward were contrary to the Camp David agreements of last September or that they would make an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty meaningless."
U.S. officials later clarified Carter's remarks on this point by-saying that he was referring to a package of American-drafted proposals put forward by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance during the ministerial talks. The Israeli cabinet's criticism, the U.S. officials said, was directed not at the American ideas but at proposals brought into the Camp David discussions by Khalil on behalf of Egypt.
Despite the hostile tone of the statements coming out of Israel and the pessimism clearly evident among administration leaders, U.S. officials seemed to be striving last night to imply that the summit can still be put back on track.
Essentially, they expressed hope that the package advanced by Vance could still serve as a basis for new top-level negotiations to break the impasse, and that after Carter meets with Begin, probably at Camp David, they might be joined by Sadat or Khalil.
For the moment, though, there was no real sign that the peace treaty, agreed to in principle by Begin and Sadat under Carter's mediation at the first Camp David summit last September, is any closer to being transformed into a reality that would end 30 years of enmity between Egypt and Israel.
At his news conference, Carter left no doubt that he is keenly aware of the treaty's importance, both in terms of helping to bring a measure of stability to the turmoil-torn Middle East and of his own prestige as an authoritative world leader.
"In my two years as president, I've spent more time and invested more of my own personal effort in the search for peace in the Middle East than on any other international problem," he said.
"Based upon the developments of last week and the recommendations of all the parties involved, I had hoped to be able to convene without delay negotiations at a level which would permit the early conclusion of a peace treaty as the first step toward a wider settlement for the entire Middle East," Carter continued.
"I regret that such direct negotiations are not possible at this time," he said, and added: "If we allow the prospects for peace that seemed so bright last September to continue to dim and perhaps even to die, the future at best is unpredictable. If we allow that hope to vanish, then the judgment of history and of our children will of necessity and rightly condemn us for an absence of concerted effort."
The negotiations to which he referred in such urgent terms began in October with general expectations that they would require only a short time to conclude. However, they quickly bogged down in a number of disagreements that since have eluded a variety of high-level, U.S.-mediated attempts at resolution.
The latest of these efforts was the round of talks held last week by Vance, Khalil and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan at Camp David. Those discussions produced Sunday's White House announcement that the three governments were considering a new summit involving Carter, Begin and Khalil to begin later this week.
Although the Sunday announcement stressed that the summit was not a certainty, administration officials subsequently made clear they were confident Begin would agree to come, even without Sadat being present. As a result, the White House and State Department were caught totally by surprise early yesterday when the Israeli cabinet gave a thumbsdown to the idea.
Last night, U.S. officials gave this account of the events leading to the latest crisis in the negotiations. From the outset of the Vance-mediated talks last week, they said, Khalil, whose authority in Egypt is second only to Sadat's, made clear that he was empowered to carry the negotiations through to completion. By contrast, Dayan said he didn't have that authority.
By Friday, Vance had decided that the unresolved issues could be settled only by elevating the talks to a summit. Dayan, while noting he would have to consult his government, agreed that Begin should be involved directly and said he would recommend that course to Jerusalem.
There then followed a series of consultations that, U.S. officials admit, may have involved a brief period of misunderstanding by Begin about whether Sadat also would attend.
Eventually, Dayan made clear that Begin would not be able to make a final decision until Dayan had returned home and reported to the Israeli cabinet. As a result, the Sunday announcement was phrased in a conditional way to reflect that fact.
But while U.S. officials admitted that they at no point had a clear-cut commitment from Begin, they implied that the general tone of the consultations about a summit, coupled with Vance's presentation of the new U.S. proposals, left the administration with the impression that Begin would come.
In fact, the administration seemed so sure of this point that it was in the midst of preparing for the summit to get under way on Thursday when it received word that the Israelis had rejected the idea.
The rejection was followed by a long private message from Begin to Carter that concluded with the Israeli leader's offer to come to Washington for talks with the president alone. After brief phone conversations with both Begin and Sadat yesterday afternoon, Carter decided to accept the Israeli's offer in a last-chance attempt to regain the momentum toward a summit.
The principal obstacle in the peace talks has been Sadat's insistence that the treaty be accompanied by a letter setting out a timetable and target date for completing separate negotiations to establish Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel, while saying it is willing to negotiate the autonomy issue as soon as a peace treaty is signed, has refused to accept either a timetable or target completion date.
Other major sticking points involve disagreements about provisions for opening the treaty to revision in the future, the timing of when the two countries will exchange ambassadors and the relationship of the treaty to other international obligations of the two nations.
Sadat has refused to accept an article in the draft treaty text which would have the effect of giving the agreement priority over Egypt's mutual defense pacts with other Arab states that might come into conflict with Israel.