Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance took responsibility yesterday for the unprecedented official turnabout in which President Carter disavowed a U.S. vote last Saturday criticizing Israel in the United Nations.
"The secretary of state accepts responsibility for the failure in communications," the State Department said in a terse statement.
The official U-turn on the controversial U.N. resolution left U.S. Middle East policy in confusion, and triggered a new flood of speculation about possible damage to Carter's credibility in conducting U.S. foreign policy and the potential impact on his presidential campaign.
Monday night, Carter issued a statement saying that, because of a misunderstanding the United States voted incorrectly Saturday for a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the occupied Arab territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Although the president's statement reaffirmed official U.S. disapproval of the Israeli settlements, Carter said the U.N. resolution contained references to the status of Jerusalem that the United States did not want included. The United States, the president added, should have abstained in the vote, but did not because of a mistake in transmitting his instructions to U.N. Ambassador Donald F. McHenry.
As administration officials sought yesterday to sort out the disarray left by Carter's announcement, their explanations, both public and private, left little doubt that there had been a misunderstanding between Vance and the president about the handling of the U.N. vote.
What remained unclear, though, was whether that was the sole reason for Carter's turnabout or whether "the failure in communications" was being used as an excuse for retreating from the U.N. vote for diplomatic and domestic political reasons.
Some officials contended that the president's statement should be taken at face value as an acknowledgement that there had been a foulup and that Carter, as a matter of principle, felt obliged to set the record straight by disavowing the U.N. vote.
Other sources suggested, though, that Carter was influenced by the explosion of anger in Israel about the U.S. action and was pressured to reassess his position by advisers fearful that the Israeli reaction might derail the U.S.-mediated Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on autonomy for the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories.
There also was speculation that the president's reversal was due to another kind of pressure -- concern that his stance might alienate Jewish voters in Massachusetts, where Carter faced a Democratic primary challenge yesterday from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and in other states like Florida and Illinois, which will hold primaries shortly.
Whatever the reason for Carter's switch, it came at the end of a sequence of events that various officials, speaking both publicly and privately, described this way:
U.S. anxiety over Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's settlements policy became greatly accelerated after the Begin cabinet recently agreed in principle to permit Jewish settlement in the center of the exclusively Arab West Bank city of Hebron.
Some U.S. policymakers felt that a clear signal of U.S. displeasure was required, and a debate developed within the administration about whether an appropriate vehicle was the upcoming Security Council vote.
The U.S. aim was to shape the resolution in ways that would clearly censure Israeli settlement policy but avoid language criticizing other Israeli policies or imply any threat to Israel's security.
This concern over language on other subjects came to focus on two points: references in the draft resolutions being considered at the United Nations to the status of Jerusalem and a call for dismantling existing Israeli settlements in the occupied teritories.
However, reliable sources said, as the discussions progressed, a misunderstanding developed between Carter and Vance.
Vance had described to Carter, as a major problem of the U.N. resolution a specific section, paragraph 7, which dealt with religious freedom in East Jerusalem.
Carter and Vance agreed that this should be eliminated, official sources said, but there was no mention in their discussion of other glancing references to Jerusalem scattered through the U.N. resolution.
Ambassador McHenry, at the United Nations, succeeded in having the offending paragraph removed, but the other references remained.
Last Friday, at Carter's weekly breakfast with his top foreign policy advisers, a decision was made to vote for the resolution provided that the Jerusalem problem and one other were taken care of. Vance is reported to have understood that the deletion of paragraph 7 settled Carter's concern about Jerusalem. Carter, however, is reported to have understood that all references to Jerusalem in the document would be removed.
Saturday morning, Vance informed Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron at a State Department meeting that the United States would vote for the resolution. Evron protested strongly, arguing that it would provoke great repercussions in Israel and seriously impede the negotiations about Palestinian autonomy.
Also on Saturday, Vance talked briefly with Carter, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, and told him that the problem about references to Jerusalem had been cleared up. Carter then gave the go-ahead to vote for the resolution and Vance, in his talk with McHenry, instructed him to cast a "yes" vote and to make a statement about U.S. objections to the language on existing settlements.
By the time Carter returned to Washington Monday, the U.S. action had resulted in front-page headlines across the country and speculation about whether the United States was changing its policy in the Middle East. It also had caused an angry up-roar by officials of the Begin government in Israel.
By noon Monday, the president had been informed that a potentially serious problem was brewing. That information was conveyed to him separately by three key advisers: Vice President Mondale, White House chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan and Carter's special Middle East negotiator, Sol. M. Linowitz. Mondale and Linowitz had met separately with Evron that morning. Details of their discussions could not be learned.
The sources described Carter as very upset when he learned that the resolution, as adopted, contained seven references to Jerusalem. A series of discussions then began among White House officials, and Vance, who was in Chicago to deliver a speech, was notified that there would be a top-level meeting at 5 p.m. Monday.
The meeting was chaired by Mondale, and, according to the sources, among those attending were Jordan, Linowitz, McHenry and Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who represented Vance until his arrival at the White House about 6:30 p.m.
Although the sources refused to reveal details of what was said, the meeting ended with a decision to issue the president's statement that night. The decision to move immediately was prompted, at least in part, by a desire to have Carter's disavowal of the vote on record before a meeting yesterday of the Israeli cabinet, the sources said.
Release of the statement at 10 p.m. Monday was followed yesterday by the State Department's announcement of Vance's assuming responsibility for the misunderstanding, a White House meeting between Carter and 30 leaders of the American-Jewish community and, late in the day, another White House get-together between Evron and the president's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
These events, accompanied by a number of statements from Carter and other officials reaffirming U.S. support for Israel, dominated the day. But they failed to disguise a clearly discernible sense of concern among administration foreign policy officials that the incident might have caused major damage to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
McHenry, at a breakfast meeting with reporters, conceded: "The effect in the Arab world will not be loving. They feel very strongly with regard to the question of settlements."
He also admitted that the basic point the United States had sought to make in voting for the resolution, "that the settlements policy is contrary to international law and an obstacle to peace," was in danger of being lost by the U.S. shift of position.