The election of Ronald Reagan could put the Camp David peace process into a state of suspended animation for as long as a year, and even then alter its direction significantly, informed Israeli sources said today.
It appeared likely that the trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian summit conference tentatively planned for later this year will be delayed until after Reagan is inaugurated Jan. 20, and that the moribund West Bank-Gaza autonomy negotiations will not find their way onto the new president's agenda until late spring, observers here noted.
Moreover, it will take additional time for the new Republican administration to fully develop its Middle East policy and put together a negotiating team if the Camp David path is to be followed, meaning the process would begin to converge with Israel's national elections and become subject to further delay, Israeli sources said. Elections will be held here no later than November and possibly as early as May, depending on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's ability to hold his shaky Likud coalition together.
A similar expectation of delay was voiced by Egypt's foreign minister, Kamal Hassan Ali, who, according to reports from Cairo, said he expects the proposed summit conference to be put off until after Reagan's inauguration. But Ali, reflecting Egyptian commitment to the Camp David talks, also said the accords were not signed in the name of President Carter, but in the name of the United States.
President Anwar Sadat, underlining this, said his call for a three-way summit still stands. The Egyptian president, in a speech in Cairo relayed by wire services, congratulated Reagan for "winning the confidence of his people" and at the same time had lavish praise for Carter's efforts on behalf of Egypt and peace in the Middle East.
In a reflection of the difficulties those efforts have encountered, the Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, Butros Ghali, called off a scheduled visit to Israel because of Israeli insistence that his talks be held in Jerusalem.
"I cannot possibly visit the city Israel has declared its unified capital," Ghali told United Press International in Cairo.
Reaction to Reagan's victory was muted elsewhere in the Arab world, but observers there immediately pointed to the victor's strong expressions of support for Israel during the campaign and before. Reflecting these fears, a spokesman for Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called the outcome a victory for Israel, recalling that Reagan has termed the PLO a "band of thugs."
In Israel, officials also centered on the results of congressional races, highlighting traditional Israeli concern for friends in the House and Senate. They expressed disappointment in the defeat of four senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee who have supported Israel in the past on major issues: Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), George McGovern (D-S.D.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Richard Stone (D-Fla.).
Observers here noted that the four pro-Israeli senators had been traditionally relied upon as a fallback against any anti-Israeli policies that might come out of the White House. Some Israeli officials also expressed concern that Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), who is likely to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, has not proved himself as strong a supporter of Israel as Church, the outgoing chairman.
In the presidential contest, Reagan's election also increased expectations among politicians of a significant shift in the focus of the peace process that Carter began in September 1978 at Camp David.
The most talked-about possibility is that Reagan, at the urging of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and other formal or informal advisers who are not enamored with the Camp David theme, would turn toward the Jordanian option, in which the United States would attempt to bring Jordan's King Hussein into discussions with Israel for a negotiated return of the occupied West Bank.
Officially, the Israeli government adopted a posture of studied calm following the U.S. election results, declaring that the special U.S.-Israeli relationship traditionally remains unaffected by changes of administrations.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a radio interview, said he expects a "time of reflection" by Reagan on Middle East problems. But, he added, "We have negotiations. They should continue. They should not be stopped because of the election. Let us hope the normalization [of relations with Egypt] will go on, and also that the new president . . . will do his best to bring the realization of the commitments made at Camp David."
Begin's predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth that Reagan's advent to the White House will be "good for the state of Israel" because in the past Israel's experience with Republican administrations has been good. This is particularly true, he said, because of Reagan's attitude toward the Soviet Union and his frequent references to Israel as a strategic ally in the Middle East.
Representatives of both ends of the political spectrum in Israel also viewed Reagan's election as favorable to Israel in the long run because of the prospect of a stronger U.S. position on global politics.
A recurrent theme in the reactions of Israeli officials today, echoing that of Rabin, was that Reagan will present a stronger position in East-West conflicts, particularly in terms of the Middle East, and, consequently, will probably regard Israel as an essential ally.
The U.S. global position in relation to the Soviet Union, according to former Israeli ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Abba Eban, is more important to Israel than "any expectations that he will fulfill his specific campaign promises."
Chaim Herzog, also a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said, "What encourages me is the approach to world problems by the Reagan camp, which sees the Soviet Union in its correct light and has no illusions about it. So one would hope they see Israel in the context of the strategic problem that faces the United States in this area."