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News Analysis Israel Maintaining Low Profile in the Face of Egyptian Bluster

The Israeli government is deliberately maintaining a low profile in response to growing resistance in Cairo to a new round of Israeli-Egyptian peace talks. With Secretary of State Cyrus Vance due in the region next weekend for a new attempt to bring the two sides together, Cabinet sources confirmed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Israel was determined not to do or say anything that could be construed as negative or provocative. (See related story from Washington.)

The purpose is to avoid any danger of being accused of complicating the negotations process so that the onus would fall on Egypt if a new round of talks fails to materialize. That explains Premier Menachem Begin’s low-key reaction to the ouster of the Israeli military mission from Egypt last week and the absence of any official comment on Sadat’s tough talk yesterday.

The Egyptian leader told reporters after his meeting with U.S. special envoy Alfred L. Atherton in Alexandria, that he did not favor renewal of face-to-face talks with Israel at this time unless Israel was ready to offer a commitment to withdraw eventually from occupied Arab territory. Sadat said that the moves from the Israeli side “are negative and backward” and emphasized repeatedly that Egypt was ready for “peace in all its aspects” but would not bargain over territories.

Sadat flatly rejected Israel’s latest offer to discuss the future status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a five-year period of “self rule” in those territories and to be ready to consider a territorial compromise if the Arabs propose one. He was quoted as saying yesterday, “Really, I don’t favor Sinai now,” a reference to a new Israeli-Egyptian meeting at a Sinai locale that Atherton and Vance are trying to arrange.

Israeli sources said they were hopeful that the Egyptians would eventually agree to further talks and that by avoiding public polemics, Israel was helping the U.S. achieve that goal. Privately, however, Israeli officials are giving serious thought to an idea advanced by Begin in the Knesset last week for some form of “partial agreement” with the Egyptians if efforts toward a comprehensive settlement remain deadlocked.

PARTIAL AGREEMENT UNDER CONSIDERATION

Actually, the idea, which Begin repeated on a television interview last Wednesday, is believed to have originated with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan some time ago. It was revived after Sadat’s meeting with Defense Minister Ezer Weizman in Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month, where the Egyptian leader proposed that Israel return El Arish in northern Sinai and Santa Katherina at Mt. Sinai to Egyptian civil administration as a gesture of goodwill.

The Cabinet flatly rejected that proposal and Begin was especially vehement against any unilateral gesture by Israel. But he said Israel was prepared to negotiate a quid pro quo agreement that would involve the return of portions of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for “peaceful relations without a formal peace treaty.” The extent of the territory returned, it was understood, would be linked to the magnitude of “peaceful relations” offered by Egypt.

That concept is reminiscent of the underlying philosophy of the second Sinai interim agreement in 1975. At that time, Israel offered to return a substantial portion of the peninsula for “active components of peace.” The actual agreement traded a small section of Sinai for limited peace components. Government spokesmen now stress that Begin’s idea would involve an open-ended agreement with Egypt with no time limit and thus not simply another “interim” accord.

Many observers see this as a rationalization of the position taken by the previous Labor-led government of Premier Yitzhak Rabin–a position that Begin ferociously attacked when he was in the opposition. Other government sources say this formulation originated with Dayan when Israeli-Egyptian talks began to go awry last January and is not connected to Sadat’s recent request for a goodwill gesture from Israel.

American sources have indicated to the JTA that the U.S. does not attach much importance to the idea of a limited agreement, at least not at this time, and is directing all its efforts towards advancing comprehensive peace talks.

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