THE REPORTS of Israel's painful withdrawal from the last swatch of Sinai desert have obscured the magnitude of a sacrifice designed to bring stability to all of the Middle East. More important than the images of desperate settlers hurling burning tires at Israeli troops is the dream of Camp David--that cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo would call into question the pervasive animosity between Arabs and Jews and perhaps spark new peace initiatives throughout the region.
But Israel's brave surrender of its oilfields, frontier towns and strategic buffer zone--as impressive as it is--has not accomplished the goals first proposed in 1977 by the late Anwar Sadat and later nurtured by Jimmy Carter. The dream of lasting peace has faded behind the smoke of gun battles and vehement declarations from various combatants that no more concessions will be made. Instead of the first giant step toward a new understanding, the completion of the Sinai agreement has ironically become an exception in a furious conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has made clear his ultimate intention of annexing the disputed West Bank and Gaza strip. Driven by a belief in his nation's Biblical claim to the territories, Begin ignores those who argue that security will never be achieved unless the Palestinian desires for self-determination endorsed at Camp David become reality. On the other side, the Palestinians' senseless refusal to recognize Israel and substitute diplomacy for terrorism creates an additional obstacle--one buttressed by the obstinance of nations such as Jordan and Syria, themselves responsible for more Palestinian civilian dislocation and carnage than all of Begin's attacks on Lebanese PLO camps put together.
Though he coolly carried out the Sinai settlement. Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak plans to end the rift between Egypt and other Arab states created in the process; Israel can expect little flexibility from Cairo on the Palestinian issue.
Israel will never turn over the West Bank to an unsupervised Palestinian government. Such a move would be an invitation to further PLO-engineered violence, and no Israeli administration could hope to stay in power after an apparent surrender to Yassir Arafat. The only real hope at this point is that enough Israeli citizens will realize that Begin's confrontational policies have only threatened their nation's long-term security by unifying Arab forces and alienating American opinion.
Begin's opposition is not without alternatives. Labor Party Leader Shimon Peres has proposed a compromise well short of an independent Palestinian state, but one that could conceivably win support from Arab moderates. Peres argues that Israel can recruit Egyptian support for limited autonomy under continued Israeli supervision, including new privileges for Arabs living in Jerusalem. With Egyptian backing, Israel would seek Saudi support and a similar settlement in Gaza, then negotiations with Jordan and a possible joint Israeli-Jordanian trusteeship over the West Bank.
Such schemes will receive little attention under the current government, though there apparently exists broad popular skepticism in Israel over the risks of incorporating a million unfriendly Arabs into the state under Begin's implicit annexation plan. The United States must reinforce that reasonable skepticism and point out that the gamble on some form of Palestinian self-determination may be in the best interests of all parties.
President Reagan has an opportunity to clarify the goals of Camp David and the obligation to convince Israel that with American support. Israeli security is not necessarily threatened by a particular territorial concession. The vision motivating the tortured Sinai transfer last week must be preserved for the Mideast conflict to end.