Israel and the United States today appeared to be on a collision course about whether a speedup in efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue is essential to reach stability in the Middle East and southern Asia.
That conclusion emerged as the Carter administration unmistakably signaled Israel its intention to push harder and faster for progress in the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy negotiations, in the apparent belief that a breakthrough would make it easier for both the United States and Israel to play a more assertive role in stabilizing the region.
The United States served notice of its intentions, according to Israeli sources, not through direct diplomatic channels but through statements made in Washington and Tel Aviv by U.S. officials.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance disclosed in Washington that special envoy Sol Linowitz will broaden his planned trip to Israel later this month to include moderate Arab states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. This is being interpreted by Israeli officials as a mission to assure the Arabs that the United States plans to make a strong effort to speed up the autonomy talks.
Such assurances, it is felt here, could be a prelude for possible U.S.-Arab military cooperation in dealing with the regional crisis.
At the same time, U.S. sources in Israel, in contacts with Israeli correspondents, stressed that the most useful thing Israel could do to help the United States cope with the turmoil in the Middle East and southern Asia would be to accelerate progress on teh Palestinian problem.
Israeli officials infer that the United States is on the verge of speeding up the autonomy talks in hopes of enlisting moderate Arab states' cooperation in confronting the regional problem.
The autonomy negotiations slipped some more today when Egype rejected an Israeli plan offering limited powers for an elected Palestinian council in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt said the Israeli plan actually was a step backward.
If it was possible to find a silver lining in the Islamic upheaval in Iran and the Soviet intervention in afghanistan it was to be found in Israel, where a justification for putting the Palestinian problem on a back burner and encouraging increased U.S. military presence in the area seemed to have presented itself to the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
The developments eclipsed the Palistinian issue and enhanced Israel's position as a strategic asset of the United States and, in the view of some, the free world.
Privately, Israeli policymakers had let it be known they were not displeased that the moribund negotiations n arab self-governance would slow to a cruising speed while world attention focused on the larger issue of growing Soviet influence in the region.
As Israeli officials have been given to understand, the U.S. proposal to move faster on Palestinian autonomy is based on the premise that the Palestinian issue has immobilized many moderate Middle Eastern countries from helping the United States achieve stability in the region in various ays, including the loan of military facilities and even signing defense pacts.
If Israel and Egypt quickly reached agreement on autonomy, the reasoning goes, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Morocco, Tunisia and even Jordan would be more amenable to lending assistance to an increased military involvement in the region.
Top officials in Begin's government say, however, that the absence of an autonomy agreement four months before the May 26 deadline can hardly be construed as an impediment to any U.S. defense pacts with Egypt, Saudi Arabia or any other country. On the contrary, the Israeli view is that forcing the pace of autonomy could cause the negotiatons to unravel and, as a result, exacerbate tensions in the Middle East.
Officials her have gradually but perceptibly been turning up the volume of their interest in a deployment of U.S. forces in the Middle East and talks about defense pacts with the United States have been stepped up.
Consequently, news from Washington that the Carter administration intends to accelerate the effort to solve the Palestinian problem in the belief that a solution si vital to achieving stability was received cooly in Begin's office.
"We were surprised, to say the least. In the context of what is happening in the whole region, raising the [Palestinian] issue to this lever makes it almost ludicrous. It sounds a bit like an excuse for failures in other directions," said one of Begin's senior advisers.
He characterized the U.S. move as "panicky," and suggested that the Carter administration "is looking for a diversion of the real issue, which is the domination of the region by the Soviet Union."
For several weeks, Begin and his Cabinet ministers have been sounding ominous warnings about a deterioration of the situation in the region, carefully couching what seems like overtures to the United States for more direct military involvement in broad references to the interests of the free world.
Israel, so far, has been skeptical of the prospect of any U.S. defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, mostly out of mistrust of Saudi intentions.
"The prime minister never regarded Saudi Arabia as stable or moderate and he does not now," said a Begin adviser.
"The Saudis are just as intractable as ever, and they still are contributing to the destruction of Israel," he added, referring to support of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Officials close to Begin said they doubted that the unrest in Iran and Afghanistan, coupled with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Moslem extremists, had caused a shift in the Saudi position against military cooperation with the United States.
In Washington, Israeli Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir told reporters that recent U.S. proposals to supply new advanced weapons to Egypt and Saudi Arabia could upset the Middle East balance of power and invite extremists of the right or left to seize control and turn American arms against Israel, Reuter reported.
[Tamir, a member of Israel's negotiating team at the autonomy talks with Egypt, complained that Washington took Israel for granted and would not give it "everything we are entitled to" in financial aid and support for its position].