Menachem Begin stands so short in Israel, and Israel so short in the world, that President Carter is apt to extract some concessions at their meeting in Washington next month. Maybe even enough to satisfy Anwar Sadat and keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord moving forward, especially since Sadat's stature in the world is so much enhanced by the risk he took in receiving the shah of Iran.
But the peace agreement has long since been devalued by the catastrophic events set in motion by the fall of the shah. Until Washington acknowledges those difficulties, and counters them, progress between Egypt and Israel can have only a trival impact on the Middle East and in the world as a whole. c
The peace treaty signed by Sadat and Begin just a year ago on the base formulated earlier at Camp David aimed at a pro-Western settlement in the Middle East. The theory was that Israel and Egypt would bring together the overwhelming preponderance of military force. The Palestinians would be accommodated by gaining autonomy on territory now occupied by Israel on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip.
King Hussein of Jordan, and the Arab oil monarchs of the Persian Gulf -- freed from subversive pressure by the Palestinians in their midst -- would join in. With the oil-exporting countries lined up, Japan and the European allies would also support the settlement.
Some disapointed parties would remain -- Russia, the Palestine Liberation Organization and radical regimes in Iraq, Syria and Libya. But after gnashing their teeth in frenzy, they too -- the theory went -- would be obliged to go along.
The fall of the shah, which came between Camp David and the signing of the treaty, changed all perspectives. The ayatollah, unlike the shah, gave a strong dose of support to the PLO. The ayatollah, unlike the shah, allowed the radical regime in Iraq to become the strongest force in the area. The ayatollah, unlike the shah who supported them, threatened the monarchical regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the oil sheikdoms. The ayatollah, unlike the shah, panicked the Japanese and the Europeans with respect to oil supplies.
The result was a solid front -- headed by the PLO by including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the sheikdoms -- opposed to every feature of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, including its autonomy provisions. The Europeans and the Japanese, with oil supplies in doubt, also began looking askance at the treaty.
The first phase of the accord, nevertheless, went forward smoothly. The Israelis turned back to Egypt two-thirds of the territory they had occupied in the Sinai Desert. The Egyptians resumed normal relations with Israel, including an exchange of ambassadors.
Trouble developed over the provisions of the treaty dealing with autonomy for the Palestinians. For one thing, Prime Minister Begin has been in deep difficulty at home because of inflation that has reached the three-digit level. Under attack from the Labor opposition, he has learned more and more on the right wing of his own coalition, including the religious parties. As a price, they have pushed hard against any concessions regarding Israel's presence on the West Bank.
With the world ganging up on the treaty -- and especially on the part of it providing for autonomy -- Begin had less and less interest in making concessions on the West Bank. So he dug in his heels, explicitly asserting Israel's right to plant settlements on the West Bank and appointing a diehard foreign minister -- Yitzhak Shamir.
An opposite process worked on President Sadat. Cut off from the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, and with steadily decreasing support from Europe and Japan, he began stepping up demands on Begin for Palestinian autonomy. He even intimated that unless agreement was reached by the May 26 target date, he might revert to the Arab fold.
The latest diplomatic phase was initiated when Sadat asked Carter to convene a session with Begin in Washington. After the string of setbacks east of Suez, the president was nothing loath to summon up memories of his one big diplomatic triumph -- the more so as he could announce the news on the eve of the New York primary. So he invited Sadat to Washington for the first week of April, and Begin for the second.
A happy outcome is not assured. Both Begin and Sadat could dig in hard. But Begin accepted the invitation with alacrity, and the odds are that he will use the visit to try and move Israel out of the international doghouse by making some concessions on autonomy. As for Sadat, the reception of the shah confirms anew his flair for the dramatic gesture and the bold move. His usual style is to use the drama of a summit to overwhelm opponents with assurances that all goes well at the top.
Carter, accordingly, has a shot at a kind of diplomatic triumph. But a hollow triumph at best. For the basic fact is that Russia, the radical states and the PLO has seized the whip hand in the Middle East. The Saudis and the Jordanians are swaying their way. Until Washington changes that basic tilt, a little progress between Egypt and Israel on the Palestinian issue, while better than nothing, is no big deal.