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Strauss Non-committal in Dispute over a Genda for Autonomy Talks

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Robert Strauss, President Carter’s special envoy to the Middle East, flew to Egypt late yesterday after a helicopter tour of the West Bank and a press conference at which he was firmly non-committal in the dispute between Israel and Egypt over the agenda for the autonomy talks. Israel has rejected Egypt’s demand for a “declaration of principles” on autonomy and insists that the negotiators get down to practical matters such as the powers of the autonomous administrative council, its structure and the ways and means to conduct elections to the council.

“I heard a presentation by the Israelis how they think it most appropriate to proceed with the negotiations,” Strauss said at his press conference “We will hear an equally persuasive and equally articulate presentation by our Egyptian friends in Cairo within the next few days. And then we will begin to assess the situation. I don’t think I should react to any specific position at this stage.”

In an interview published in Yediot Achronot Strauss denied local press reports that he supported the Israeli view on the agenda and said he would make up his mind only after his talks with Egyptian officials. A high ranking source in the American delegation accompanying Strauss said that when the envoy said he “understood” the Israeli position he did not mean he supported it.

‘Strauss responded briefly and with candor to the questions of reporters at his press conference. Asked whether he has had any contact with Palestinians, he replied, “yes.” He did not elaborate. On the issue of Israeli settlements, Strauss said “The position of our government is very well known and I happen to personally fully agree with the position of our government….So far as I am personally concerned, I find it (settlements) is a negative overhanging the peace process.”

U.S. WILL BE FULL PARTNER IN TALKS

Strauss emphasized, however; that he did not come to the Middle East with solutions to all problems. “I am not a fool to believe that we can solve problems of 3000 years and a conflict of 30 years in a few meetings,” he said. He reiterated that the main purpose of his current visit is to “listen, learn and feel the problems.” He described his role in the forthcoming sessions of the autonomy negotiations as that of a “responsible partner.”

He said that President Carter felt a personal and political commitment toward President Anwar Sadat and Premier Menachem Begin in the peace talks. “I feel free to say that we shall be full partners to the negotiations,” he said with reference to Israeli statements during the past month that tended to minimize the degree of American participation for fear that the U.S. might support Egypt on all issues.

Before his press conference, Strauss met with senior Israeli ministers headed by Begin and before that with Begin and Interior Minister Yosef Burg, chairman of the Israeli negotiating team. Begin stressed the importance of the Camp David agreements and said Israel intended to fully implement them. He said Israel was willing to enter the autonomy talks even though Jordan and the residents of the territories would not participate as stipulated by the Camp David accords. Strauss was accompanied at his meetings by U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis.

HELICOPTER SWING OVER WEST BANK

Before leaving for Egypt, Strauss and his party were taken by Israel army helicopter over the West Bank. They were accompanied by Burg and by Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, chairman of the ministerial settlement committee. Two stops were made at key strategic spots– Maale Efraim, and Kafr Kassem, an Arab village on the Israeli side of the West Bank demarcation line.

There, overlooking the Jordan Valley, Sharon expounded on the defense value of the Israeli settlements in the valley below. He said there were presently 26 settlements on the West Bank but there would have to be 50 before the settlement effort could be said to be firmly established. It was also pointed out to Strauss that at the point where they stood, Israel was narrower than the length of Broadway in New York, about 14 miles.

At the end of his trip, Strauss would say nothing more than that he had found it “interesting” Earlier; at his press conference, he seemed to be anxious over the possible repercussions of his West Bank tour in Arab quarters. “Regrettably it won’t meet with the support of everyone in the region,” he said. But he observed that it was “important” for him to see the “real estate” as he embarked on his mission.

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