President Anwar Sadat's reluctant decision to resume Palestinian autonomy talks fits into a two-year-old pattern of "going along" to satisfy President Carter and salvage the peacemaking process of which Sadat sees himself as author.
What appeared at first glance to be a startling reversal of the Egyptian position since Israel passed its disputed Jerusalem law seems on closer scrutiny, therefore, to be yet another example of Sadat's willingness to make concessions despite the advice of his top foreign policy aides.
In Jerusalem, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said Begin had accepted an invitation from President Carter to hold talks in Washington the week after the U.S. presidential election.
[Begin's aides did not, however, cast the meeting as a summit, and there was as yet no indication Sadat would be there, Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne reported. The aides said that Begin planned to go to Washington for the contennial of the birth of Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism and had been invited by Carter to meet while he was there.]
Sadat's most prominent adviser -- Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali and Butros Ghali, the minister of state for foreign affairs -- had both firmly rejected the idea of resuming autonomy talks until Israel offered specific gurantees on Jerusalem, West Bank settlements and treatment of Palestinians during the negotiations.
But neither is known to have been consulted before Sadat gave in to the blandishments of special U.S. negotiator Sol Linowitz during yesterday's 50-minute meeting in Alexandria.Ghali acknowledged shortly afterward that he was not fully informed on what went on, and the ailing Ali, awakened by a reporter seeking an explanation, asked over the telephone what had happened.
Only two days earlier, Ali had firmly predicted that talks could not resume until the obstacles pointed out by Sadat in a recent exchange of letters with Prime Minister Begin were removed.
Similarly, Ghali told Egyptian reporters immediately after yesterday's announcement that only "contracts" were agreed on, not talks. By today, he was explaining that Egypt expected to be discussing with the Israelis and Americans a "mixture" of topics to include preparations for a three-way summit conference of Carter, Begin and Sadat as well as the stalled autonomy issues.
Technically, both officials could be proved right. Sadat's agreement covered only a resumption of the talks and contained no guarantees of a more supple Egyptian position. In addition, observers here pointed out that any talks begun under the shadow of an imminent summit conference naturally will gravitate toward preparations for the high-level decision makers' talks rather than attempt to tackle problems at a lower level.
But whatever the nature of the resumed negotiations, there was nothing unusual in Sadat's departure from the stand of his Foreign Ministry. Throughout the Camp David process -- and beginning with the Camp David negotiations themselves -- the Egyptian president has often disregarded carefully prepared Foreign Ministry position papers in the heat of personal summitry with Carter, Begin or U.S. envoys asking him in Carter's name for cooperation.
"What can we do?" A Foreign Ministry official asked in a resigned tone not long ago. "We prepare the papers the way we have been trained. But he is a visionary."
Actually, informed Egyptian officials explain, there is more to Sadat's method than vision. Throughout the 18 months of negotiations, he has been striving to build confidence in Israeli public opinion by presenting a conciliatory, friendly image designed to reassure Egypt's former enemies that they can count on peace firmly enough to take the risks necessary to carry it on to the next stages.
To do so, Sadat has often rejected the advice of his advisers. Ghali in particular had advocated tighter links between progress in the autonomy talks and the extent of normalization between Egypt and Israel. But for Sadat, building an atmosphere in which peace seemed guaranteed appeared more important than step-by-step advantages in the autonomy negotiations.
As a result, the full terms of normalization as specified in the treaty were carried out, some ahead of schedule, despite the increasingly obvious stalemate in autonomy talks.
It was only after what Sadat regarded as provocation and Israeli determination to preempt the negotiations by creating facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank that Sadat suspended the talks, first last May when the Jerusalem law was introduced and then again Aug. 3 when it passed the Israeli parliament, with full backing from the Begin government.
Yesterday's move back into the familiar pattern of conciliation may have had some more immediate motives, however, related to the American election campaign and fears that last month's increasingly sour atmosphere could endanger the entire process set in motion at Camp David.
Egyptian officials make little attempt to conceal their hopes for a Carter victory next November over Ronald Reagan, his Republican opponent. Carter is a known quantity here. In addition, Carter has had enough personal contact to benefit from the Arab loyalty to friends demonstrated recently by Sadat during the sickness and death of Shah Mommed Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
But perhaps most important, Sadat and his aides are counting on Carter to pressure Israel into concessions on Palestinian autonomy once he is freed from the need to maintain the favor of American Jewish voters. Against this backdrop, Sadat was willing to be reminded of the dangers to Carter should the autonomy talks remain in the visible stall through November.
In additon, American officials seemed genuinely worried that the worsening tone between Egypt and Israel could escalate into exchanges from which both Begin and Sadat would find it hard later to retreat. As the man who shocked the Middle East onto the road to Camp David with his November 1977 trip to Jerusalem, Sadat also was susceptible to arguments that yet another gesture was needed from him.
Linowitz said he also brought with him from his talks with Begin in Jerusalem indications that the causes of recent friction would diminish. This was widely interpreted to mean a hint that Begin will refrain from moving his offices to the eastern sector of Jerusalem captured from Jordan in 1967, and perhaps to hold off announcing new Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
But under questioning, the U.S. envoy specified that he had offered Sadat no guarantees or assurances of Israeli restraint -- only "impressions." s
Observers quickly saw the possibility of trouble on this point. It was after an official American "assessment" that the Jerusalem bill would never pass the parliament that Sadat resumed the talks after his first suspension in May.
The U.S. assessment, although based on consultations with Begin's government, turned out to be entirely wrong. It remained to be seen whether Linowitz "impressions" will be any more accurate.
Perhaps with this in mind, Sadat appeared restrained and even nervous as the resumption of the talks was announced yesterday.
As Linowitz read the communique, the Egyptian leader bit down so hard on his pipe that his jaw muscles balled up on his cheeks.