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Behind the Headlines Israel’s Agonizing Decision: Confrontation with Washington — Now or Later?

The Israeli Cabinet decided yesterday not to decide–yet–whether to conclude an interim settlement with Egypt. Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, who had been called in for consultations, was sent back to Washington to elicit further information from Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger on Egypt’s settlement terms. The Cabinet ministers felt they still did not possess all the details they wanted before buckling down to their fateful task: deciding whether to accept or reject the Egyptian terms which have been heavily endorsed both by the Secretary and by President Ford himself.

But the final decision will not be deferred for long. Premier Yitzhak Rabin is due to leave tomorrow for Germany for a four-day official visit, returning before the weekend. Possibly, officials said, he would extend his stay for a day or so to meet with Kissinger, who is also due in Europe this week.

Next Sunday the Cabinet will meet again, and by then the required additional information is expected to be in–and the decision-making process will begin in earnest.

BASIC PROBLEM FACING CABINET

The “basic problem facing the Cabinet,” a highly placed source here explained this week, is whether to enter into “sharp confrontation” with the U. S. now, or whether to postpone the confrontation for two or three years. The confrontation, the high source said, was ultimately unavoidable because the U.S. had consistently opposed, and still opposed, Israel’s demands for substantial border changes in an overall peace.

If there is no interim agreement with Egypt now, then the U.S. will call, together with the Soviet Union, for a resumption of the Geneva peace conference, and will present there its own overall peace plan. This has been made abundantly clear to Israel by both Ford and Kissinger.

Israel knows enough of what the overall U.S. peace plan will entail to have extreme misgivings over its presentation. The thrust of Israel’s dialogue with the U.S. in connection with the interim settlement negotiations has been aimed at ensuring that Washington will not proceed, once an interim settlement has been concluded, to draw up an overall settlement plan “without coordination” with Jerusalem.

Israel has sought assurances that, at least for the duration of the interim agreement (understood to be a period of three years), there will be no pressures from Washington to conclude a similar agreement with Syria, and no attempt to promote an overall settlement at Geneva without prior and ongoing “coordination” with Israel.

REASONS FOR DELAYING CONFRONTATION

What are the arguments in favor of delaying the confrontation, if it is in any event ultimately inevitable? Basically, the highly placed source explained, these arguments hinge on the broad American perception of the current opportunity for the U.S. to enhance its role and position in Egypt. Washington feels the interim settlement approach offers an historic opportunity for Egypt to be encouraged to continue and accelerate its swing away from the Soviet orbit of influence and toward the U.S.-Western orbit.

Following an interim agreement, the Egyptian government, with American and other Western aid, would hopefully devote more of its energies to its internal economic and social problems. At the same time, the process of “normalization” would continue in the Suez Canal zone, also contributing to a further pacification of the area. The Soviet influence, and flow of Soviet weaponry to Egypt, would concomitantly, wane, according to this thesis, and Egypt would gradually lose some of the intensity of its war drive.

Israel, the highly placed source said, did not dispute the broad American contention that an enhanced American role and presence in Egypt and the Mideast would be to Israel’s long-term benefit, But Israel is striving to ensure that the price it is being asked to pay in order-to facilitate U.S. policy aims in Egypt is not too high and does not leave Israel weakened and therefore susceptible to stepped up pressures in the near future. The U.S. role in compensating Israel for the territorial-strategic price to be paid is to make long-term arms and economic aid commitments. This has been one important subject in the current negotiations, the source indicated. Clearly, if Israel rejected the settlement package this would directly and adversely affect the level of U.S. aid to her, though one could not predict to what extent.

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