Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin paid a farewell call on President Carter yesterday, a visit made poignant by mutual awareness that their historic 1978 encounter at Camp David, with the president of Egypt, is not likely to be repeated.
Carter's hopes for a new summit meeting to continue the Mideast peace process have been suspended, if not dashed, by Ronald Reagan's victory. Carter said Wednesday that he considers a summit while he is still in office "unlikely," and he said he doesn't know what Reagan's position will be on such a meeting after his inauguration.
Carter and Begin carefully avoided any reference to a summit when they appeared before reporters after their meeting yesterday. Begin concentrated instead on paying a bittersweet tribute to Carter, calling him "a shining example of a true democrat" who "has proved what is the beauty of democracy in how he took the decision by his free people, the citizens of the United States."
Carter, who negotiated the Camp David agreement and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty with Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, called these accords "solemn documents, committed on the honor of our nations, on a permanent basis . . . . We consider these to be permanently binding on us as the prospects for peace unfolds in the future."
The president added: "We also are well aware that there is no viable alternative extant to the continuation of the Camp David peace talks, and we are committed to that prospect and that process."
But, although Begin agreed that "the Camp David agreement is a binding treaty that should be carried out," the impending change in the U.S. presidency has left big questions about whether and how the Camp David blueprint for peace between Israel and the Arab world will be pursued.
The next step in that process is supposed to be an agreement for granting limited self-government to the Palestinian inhabitants of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Negotiations have dragged on for 1 1/2 years without significant progress.
Had Carter been reelected, he had planned to give the matter priority attention at a new three-way summit around the beginning of the year.
In a talk with reporters Wednesday, Carter said that if the autonomy talks make progress, "there would be a possibility -- an unlikely possibility -- that a summit would take place prior to inauguration. I doubt that would be the case."
After inauguration day, Carter said, it would be up to Reagan to decide whether he wants to pursue a summit with Begin and Sadat. The president added, "I hope that the Camp David process will be kept intact to a major degree and don't know precisely what Gov. Reagan's position would be on that."
After the meeting with Begin yesterday, White House press secretary Jody Powell said, "What the president said Wednesday still stands." Reliable sources said Carter and Begin had not formally shelved the summit plan, in part because of a desire to maintain flexibility and in part because of the need to consult Sadat, whose views on the summit are unclear.
However, the sources said, moving ahead on the summit is very unlikely because Carter, as a lame-duck president, would be unable to make long-range commitments on behalf of the United States and because both Israel and Egypt will want to guage Reagan's approach to the Middle East before making any concessions or agreements on the autonomy stalemate.
The slow pace of the negotiations already had forced postponement of the summit from immediately after the election until the end of the year or later. As a result, the sources said, even in the unlikely event that Carter does meet with Begin and Sadat, there is no chance of enough progress having been made toward an autonomy agreement for the occasion to be anything other than ceremonial.
Carter's special mediator for the autonomy talks, Sol M. Linowitz, is known to be unwilling to continue in the job after the change of administrations and is understood to be urging that Reagan appoint a new mediator.
So the entire process is likely to go on indefinite hold until Reagan has decided on a Mideast policy directin for his administration, sources said. That sorting-out process is expected to take until next spring.
In the interim, most observers think there will be almost no movement toward a summit or the autonomy agreement that is supposed to result from it.