ISRAEL OFFERED a new wrinkle as its Camp David talks with Egypt on Palestinian autonomy resumed the other day. The idea is to replace the military government of the territories Israel occupied in 1967 with an Israeli civilian administration reporting to the minister of defense. The plan's author, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, evidently sees it as a sort of halfway house to Palestinian self-rule. The plan's critics see it as a front for the creeping annexation that the Begin government acknowledges is its real purpose--a wrinkle on a familiar face.
Given the success of negotiation as an instrument of peacekeeping in the Middle East in recent years, a new arrival from Mars might wonder why the resumption of this round has been greeted with such universal skepticism, apart from the somewhat forced enthusiasm of the Israeli government and some Egyptians. The explanation is, of course, that the topic now on the table, the Palestinian question, is different and harder. Deciding early--without testing it--that Camp David was a snare, the Palestinians and their friends have concentrated on destroying it and forcing its sponsor, the United States, to come up with another answer. Many people would say that by their boycott the Palestinians have destroyed at least that part of Camp David pertaining to them. But they have quite failed to get the United States to come up with something else.
What are the chances of that? When the Reagan administration talks about the Mideast, its emphasis is on military-type security, with the Arab-Israeli dispute rating not much more than a passing glance. At the United Nations last week, the secretary of state managed to avoid mention of Camp David altogether. This troubled some Israelis, who fear the administration may be slipping away from the process that is at once Israel's only existing peace channel and its best defense against having to tackle the Palestinian question seriously ("Don't pressure us, we're negotiating.").
But it ought to trouble Palestinians and their supporters, too. For the American alternative to Camp David may not be, as they hope, a Geneva squeeze on Israel. It could turn out to be a quiet decision that the Palestinian issue is not only too hard and politically unrewarding but not all that urgent, since demonstrably the oil Arabs' security worries are drawing them into ever greater security cooperation with Washington anyway. What the Palestinian camp might well ponder, in short, is whether it is really in its interest to sneer at Camp David.