President Carter's apparent success in reviving the stalled Palestinian autonomy talks may be less important in diplomatic than in domestic U.S. political terms, as part of Carter's bid to win reelection.
That was the immediate significance of the announcement made yesterday in Egypt by Carter's special Mideast envoy, Sol M. Linowitz, that the on-again-off-again negotiations will be resumed "sometime within the next few weeks."
Underscoring its importance to Carter's campaign strategy was the haste with which the president, after a telephone conversation with Linowitz yesterday morning, rushed to tell a White House meeting of labor leaders that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, "deeply committed to the Camp David peace process," had agreed to get the talks moving again.
At stake for Carter was the continued credibility of his principal foreign policy achievement -- the process which, beginning with the 1978 Camp David summit, produced the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and which now is supposed to lead to limited self-government for the Palestinian inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Less than a week ago, when Linowitz began his latest mission to the Middle East, the autonomy talks seemed so mired in stalemate and acrimony that senior U.S. officials candidly said there was little hope of reviving them before the end of the year.
That, in turn, had raised fears here about a lengthy and embarrassing delay that would cause the Camp David process to lose possibly irretrievable ground in the international community as the main diplomatic channel for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, erode Carter's reputation as the principal Mideast peacemaker and make him vulnerable to attack by his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan.
Now that situation has been reversed, at least for the short run, by Linowitz's success in reviving the comatose negotiations. Although the details of precisely what happened were still murky last night, the indications were that Linowitz had engineered an intricate, multifaceted deal designed to placate Sadat, who had halted the talks in anger at what he regarded as Israeli intransigence.
The apparent centerpiece of this arrangement is agreement by Carter and Begin to meet Sadat's demand for another three-way summit after the U.S. election on Nov. 4. Although Linowitz's announcement spoke only of agreement to "consult" about a summit, reliable diplomatic sources said Sadat had been given a firm commmitment that there will be such a meeting late this year.
In addition, the sources said, Linowitz apparently succeeded in convincing Begin that he should make a conciliatory gesture toward Sadat. This is expected to take the form of Begin's deferring, for the time being, his announced plan to strengthen Israeli claims to East Jerusalem by moving his office to that predominantly Arab section of the city.
In an appearance on Israeil television last night, Begin sidestepped questions about the move to East Jerusalem, saying the question would have to be considered by his full cabinet. But, the sources said, barring unexpected developments,. the likelihood is that the Israelis in the next few days will find some way to temporarily putting the ultra-sensitive issue on the shelf.
For Carter's political purposes, these developments couldn't have come at a more propitious time. By coincidence, the Jewish service organization B'nai B'rith is holding its annual convention here this week, and Carter, Reagan and independent candidate John B. Anderson are to appear to lay out their Middle East policies in a bid for Jewish votes.
With the announcement yesterday of Linowitz's success, Carter was able to do some upstaging of Reagan, who led off last night with a strongly pro-Israel speech. Similarly, when the president makes his B'nai B'rith appearance tonight, he will be able to point to yesterday's developments as renewed proof that the Camp David process is far from dead and argue that he is the man best able to deal with the tensions of the Middle East.
In actuality, though, diplomatic sources said that renewed talks, while preserving the illusion of movement, are not likely to alter their original gloomy view that any real progress on Palestinian autonomy won't come until the U.S. presidential election and all its uncertainties are settled.
The differences that have divided Egypt and Israel for 15 months may have been papered over, but, the sources noted, they still remain. And, while some participants like Linowitz are genuinely optimistic that some of the negotiating obstacles can be surmounted in the coming weeks the more realistic expectation is that both Sadat and Begin will only be going through the motions until they know who will be president of the United States after Nov. 4 and what direction he's likely to take on the Middle East.