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Behind the Headlines the Ceremonies Are over but the Problems Remain

Israeli and American flags flew in unison along Pennsylvania Avenue last week conveying, if only in symbolic form, an outward appearance of solidarity between the two nations. Judging from the statements made by Premier Menachem Begin and President Carter following their lengthy discussions, there was good reason to believe that the impression was not illusory.

An obviously pleased Begin termed his talks with the President “very successful” and praised Carter as “a great friend of Israel.” The President was no less subdued in his comments affirming the “personal rapport” established between him and the Israeli leader. He said he thought the meetings “could (not) have been any better.”

The most optimistic assessment, however, came from Vice President Walter Mondale, who insisted “that relations between the United States and Israel have never been better than they are today” and lavished praise on Israel’s “remarkable new Prime Minister.”

NOTHING HAS CHANGED

Notwithstanding these auspicious statements, which could be easily dismissed as atmospherics, observers here were quick to cut through the cosmetics and inflated rhetoric to return to reality–for in essence nothing has changed.

Begin and Carter had what appears to have been a productive get-acquainted session. But neither leader seems to have made any great strides toward convincing the other. What some had hoped and predicted would emerge from the talks never took place.

There was no indication, for instance, that the U.S. position on Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories except for so-called “minor adjustments” has been modified. Although the President reassured Begin that “we are determined to do our share not to try to impose our will on anyone but to act as a trusted intermediary,” he was quick to add that “controversial issues” creating “dissension among people who have strongly held opposing views” would be brought to the fore.

The President also spoke of “differences of opinion” between the two countries which, he said, had been explored “in a very blunt and frank fashion.” Only “some of the differences” were resolved, he said. One of the thorniest outstanding differences is on the Palestinian issue. The Administration still speaks in terms of a “Palestinian homeland”– an idea repugnant to Begin.

ANOTHER AREA OF DISAGREEMENT

Another area of disagreement centers around how soon a settlement should come. An impatient Carter has made it clear that he desires rapid movement toward peace. Although Israel acknowledges “the sense of urgency,” Begin told Carter, “we also must have some patience.” Israelis are concerned lest the absence of rapid progress toward a settlement lead to renewed accusations of Israeli intransigence.

There was nothing new, moreover, in the “framework for the peace-making process” divulged by Begin at his July 20 news conference in Washington. What the Premier said was what the previous Israeli government had been saying all along–Israel is prepared to go to Geneva without any prior conditions. Predictably, the Arab states, true to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Mideast politics, rejected the plan outright even before it was made public.

The external optimism which attended the talks is, therefore, probably an overreaction. If Begin accomplished anything it was to persuade the President that Washington should forego making further statements about the conflict and, at least for the time being, leave it up to the parties directly involved.

“I will stick to my public views,” Carter stressed, “but I think now is the time to be quiet about specifics.” In effect, the President called for an extension of an earlier moratorium on comments on the Middle East pending Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s scheduled visit to the area beginning Aug. I.

CONFRONTATION WAS AVOIDED

Perhaps the most important result of the talks was: they laid to rest exaggerated fears of confrontation between the two leaders. ” Your minds may be at peace,” Begin reassured an apprehensive audience here last week. “There was no confrontation.” Jewish leaders appeared gratified by the foundation for mutual understanding engendered by the discussions. For the time being, then, the American Jewish community is breathing a little easier. How much longer it will be able to do so is uncertain.

The road to Geneva is one strewn with difficulties. A lot now depends on the success of Vance’s trip in which he will try to good Arab leaders to return to the conference table.

According to White House Press Secretary Jody Powell, a “new phase” in the negotiating process has begun. He added, however, that “the important point is agreement between Israel and her Arab neighbors. We have no desire to bring the two sides to an agreement with us but between each other. That is the sole purpose.” If only on that point, there was complete unanimity among Israeli and American officials.

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