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Behind the Headlines: Looking Towards the Peace Talks

With four out of the six provisions of the cease-fire agreement now being implemented, Israel’s Cabinet and top officials are turning their thinking and planning towards the peace conference which has become a practical probability. From capitals around the world word has gone forth that Geneva is to be the place and Dec. 10 the time–and no one has gainsaid this. So ministers and officials here are assuming it to be true and are beginning to prepare, politically and psychologically, for peace talks. To date, the Cabinet as such has not discussed Israel’s negotiating positions–but it is expected to begin such discussions at once.

One issue which will need reconsideration is that of Sharm el-Sheikh whose strategic importance would seem to have decreased in the face of the new blockade at Bab el Mandeb. But knowledgeable sources said today that Israel still viewed Sharm as a vitally important point. In such thinking and planning as has already begun in Jerusalem a tendency is emerging to envisage a peace in stages rather than a peace at one fell swoop. There is evidence, say knowledgeable sources, that the U.S. too, envisages a peace in stages. Because of this, a phrase which is gaining prominence from day to day is “the nature of the peace.” Of course, everyone still believes that the territorial issue remains central to any peace talks. But, because peace is now seen as a gradual process, and because many people here anticipate larger Israeli concessions than they did before Yom Kippur, the “nature of the peace” has become newly important.

The phrase is not new: it was stressed in the past, especially by Foreign Minister Abba Eban. Now others are using it too–to explain what they would want in return for really major Israel concessions. And equally important with the negotiating positions which Israel’s representatives will present to the peace conference are Israel’s “minimum”–the point beyond which this government will not go. This has to be decided upon with equal urgency because it has to be clarified, as firmly and as early as possible, to the U.S. government. This vitally important dialogue with the U.S. is expected to precede the peace talks themselves. There are suspicions in Jerusalem–despite official denials–that U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger may have predicted to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat larger-Israeli concessions than the Israel government is in fact prepared to make, even in the new post-war reality. Israel, for instance, is solidly opposed to the Rogers plan which envisaged insignificant changes on the Israel-Egypt border.

Israel, for instance, would not make major concessions in return for the kind of peace which Sadat currently refers to: a peace which entails a cessation of belligerency, at least for the time being, and little more. Such a peace would be far too brittle and too artificial to be worth conceding large swathes of land for. But a peace in which borders linked rather than separated the two sides, in which commercial and tourism ties flourished–such a peace would be self-perpetuating. If such a peace could be achieved as a final stage, then Israel would be prepared to make major concessions, ultimately, to achieve it. This is the thinking of some “people in high places,” at least, in Jerusalem.

Before the peace talks can get under way, the two outstanding points in the cease-fire will have to be settled. The first point calls for both sides to “scrupulously” observe the cease-fire–and Israel interprets this as referring to Bab el Mandeb and the blockade. For Israel, the lifting of the blockade is a prerequisite for any progress. For Egypt, section Two is a prerequisite: this calls for discussions aimed at a pull-back to the Oct. 22 lines in the context of a general disengagement and redeployment. Discussions between Generals Aharon Yariv and Mouhamed Gemassi will resume early next week and the disengagement issue will be the focal point in their talks.

On the broader political front, two question marks still hang over the prospect of productive peace talks. One is the result of the Arab summit set for Nov. 26. There are still several extremists, among them Syria and Iraq, who do not accept the need to negotiate with Israel and would perhaps even prefer to resume the fighting. At the summit, too, the voices of King Faisal and the oil Sheikhs will carry great weight because of the success of their oil cutback campaigns. This summit is due to hammer out a common Arab policy towards the peace talks. if they are to be held.

Secondly, the Soviet intentions remain a puzzle. There has been no significant reaction from Moscow to the Kissinger-Induced cease-fire stabilization as yet, and observers here are wondering what the USSR will decide. Soviet behind-the-scenes influence will be very powerful at the Arab summit. Will the Kremlin discourage its Arab clients from participating in the peace talks which are essentially an American-engineered achievement, or will they encourage Syrian intransigence while at the same time approving Egypt’s participation? (After all, the talks are to be under Soviet as well as American auspices.) And what will be the Soviet attitude towards the Palestinians? Will they encourage further waves of terror–so as to steal the Chinese thunder, or will they press for Palestinian representation at the peace talks? Israel has declared repeatedly it will not negotiate with terrorists–and this itself could pose a problem. Israel for its part has hinted broadly and publicly that it thinks the present time propitious for re-establishing diplomatic ties with Moscow. But there has been no reaction from the Kremin whatever to this hint.

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