One thing you have to say for Sol Linowitz, President Carter's special representative in the Middle East. In the matter of preparing for a new round of autonomy talks, he sets a nice table. The flowers, the silverware, the napkins -- he's got everything in place.
In his recent Jerusalem-to-Cairo shutting, he: managed to persuade Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin to make just enough of the noises Egypt's President Anwar Sadat needed to hear: a reaffirmed commitment to only four more settlements on the West Bank; no big rush to move the prime minister's office to East Jerusalem; a hold on any formal steps to annex the Golan Heights.
Sadat, in turn, was encouraged to accommodate Begin on the later's desire for a quickening of the "normalization" of Israel-Egyptian relations across the board, in keeping with the spirit of their peace treaty. It's agreed that both sides will press on with what Begin is pleased to call a renewal of autonomy "negtiations" and Sadat insists are actually "preparatory talks" for a U.S.-Isareli-Egyptian summit sometime after the Nov. 4 elections.
That's the party Linowitz has so carefully arranged. The game plan is that the talks over how to achieve a measure of "autonomy" for the West Bank and Gaza will proceed right through Election time toward the end of the year to resolve the last and hardest parts.
The only question is whether anybody will show up.
And the anwer to that is going to depend far less on the differences between Israel and Egypt on "autonomy" issues than it will on the deep and absolutely fundamental differences between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on how best to provide for Israel's security and stability in the Middle East.
The Middle East issue is probably the clearest of any having to do with foreign policy in the presidential campaign. Who wins in November will profoundly affect American policy in that part of the world for years to come.
To see why, look first at the Israeli political scene. Begin, who faces an election no later than November of next year and perhaps as early as next spring, is a Camp David man. Scratch deep enough, and you might also find him to be a Carter man. He need not, after all, have gone as far as he did to cooperate with the Carter administration's efforts to revive the "autonomy" talks before Election Day and to present the politically profitable prospect, for Carter, of a summit thereafter. The onus for having broken off the talks lay squarely with Sadat.
But the Camp David process, and its next step toward limited self-rule (autonomy) on the West Bank, are Begin policy. If it fails, his Labor Party opposition would almost certainly challenge him with a quite different and, the they think, better idea: some form of partition of the West Bank to secure a more defensible border between Israel and the Arab world.
So Begin has a considerable incentive to wrap up the "autonomy" arrangements by the end of the year. Sadat has his own reasons for demonstrating to his violent Arab critics the value of Camp David. If Carter wins, in short, the Linowitz table-setting might well produce a party, on schedule.
But if Reagan wins and Carter becomes a lame duck, the Camp David process would probably colapse. And while there are many who would say good riddance, I doubt that Begin is among them, for there would then be little chance of a new Reagan administration initiative before Isreal gets caught up in its own election-year paralysis.
It isn't only a problem of timing. If Reagan is to be taken at his word, he either doesn't understand or doesn's accept an honest-broker role for the United States in the Middle East.
Reagan sees the Soviet Union everywhere in the Arab world, with the PLO as its surrogate. He sees Israel as a "major strategic asset" for the United States in an essentially East-West conflict. To the extent that he concedes the fact of Camp David, he insists that Carter had no real hand in it: it was a Begin-Sadat show. He gets applause from the American Jewish community with attacks on U.S. abstentions at the Unted Nations and on American arms traffic with such crucial Arab moderates as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
For almost a decade, the United States has been working its way free of one-sided, unquestioning support for the Israeli side of almost everything and into a postion of influence on both sides of the argument. Reagan would turn all that back. And while the cost of doing so would almost certainly be measured in heightened tensions, diminished American influence and increased Soviet influence, one of the biggest losers, ironically, might well be Israel's incombent prime minister.