U.S. Taken by Surprise by Pending Israel-egyptian Summit Meeting

The United States admitted today that it was surprised by the sudden probability of an Israeli-Egyptian summit meeting in Jerusalem without its influence and sought to characterize the dramatic change in Middle East diplomacy as merely a step toward reconvening the Geneva conference which the Carter Administration has been urging all along.

The State Department’s chief spokesman, Assistant Secretary of State Hodding Carter, stressed repeatedly during his press briefing today that the Geneva conference was the objective of the possible new diplomatic moves and that resolution of the Middle East conflict required an overall settlement.

He said that “both parties”–Egypt and Israel–”said they are still committed to a Geneva conference” and that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “put it in the context of a speedy resolution of procedural matters that should not be allowed to block Geneva.” The possible Jerusalem meeting between Sadat and Israeli Premier Menachem Begin “represents a moving along to Geneva,” Carter said.

He also admitted freely that the U.S. was taken unawares by the developments of the past few days. “We were not ahead of events.” Carter said. He said the possible Jerusalem meeting was “an initiative the two leaders took themselves” and the U.S. had “no information” and there was “no consultations with the U.S. on this kind of visit.” He said that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance has had “no direct contacts” with either Sadat or Begin in the last few days.

The State Department’s acknowledgement that it was surprised by the latest initiatives was seen in some circles as an indication that the U.S. does not wish either the Soviet Union or Syria to consider that they were being hoodwinked in the U.S. efforts for a Mideast settlement.

THE STAKES INVOLVED

While continuing to say that it “welcomes” the idea of a Sadat visit to Jerusalem and to praise Sadat and Begin for their “contributions” to a settlement, Washington made it clear that Sadat’s visit and its possible consequences are not what it has planned.

At stake is the possibility of a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement that would undercut U.S. moves with Soviet collaboration toward an overall settlement at Geneva with the purpose of settling the Palestinian question and sovereignty over the West Bank and the Golan Heights. A bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt would sidestep those issues for the time being while ending hostilities between those countries.

The State Department indicated its coolness with diplomatic tact. Carter described the U.S. views without making it an “announcement.” He preceded his remarks on the Middle East with the announcement of a forthcoming election in Bolivia and Vance’s trip to Latin America for “several days” beginning Sunday. This raised the possibility that Vance would be away from Washington when Sadat would be making his visit to Jerusalem.

WILL FACILITATE CONTACTS

Carter told reporters: “As we said yesterday, we welcome such a visit as a concrete contribution by the leaders involved to moving forward negotiations for an overall settlement of the Middle East conflict. We believe the recent exchange between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel underline their sincerity of purpose in seeking to put an end to three decades of strife.

“For our part, we will do anything necessary to facilitate contacts which we have always considered essential if the parties to the dispute are to settle their differences themselves at the Geneva conference. We believe these exchanges are helpful in the continuing efforts by all parties to the conflict to reconvene that conference as soon as possible.” Carter said that Begin’s invitation to the conflict to reconvene that conference as soon as possible.” Carter said that Begin’s invitation to Sadat will be relayed by the U.S. through the U.S. Embassy in Cairo “with greatest of pleasure.”

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