Strauss Seeks to Get Autonomy Negotiations off Dead Center

The fourth session of the Israeli-Egyptian U.S. autonomy talks got underway here today with a spirited opening statement by President Carter’s special envoy, Robert Strauss, obviously intended to get the negotiations off dead center where they have been stalled since they started last May. Strauss called on both sides to “have the courage not to equivocate but to face difficult issues and resolve them fairly.”He was referring to the Israeli-Egyptian deadlock over an agenda.

Egypt has proposed a declarative statement of principles that would establish the ultimate objectives of autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It feels this approach would provide an incentive to Palestinian moderates to join in the negotiations and would improve the image of the autonomy plan in the Arab world.

Israel has rejected that idea for fear that it would bog down the discussions in politics and ideology. The Israeli position is that the talks begin by tackling the practical aspects of autonomy such as the election of an autonomous council, who may seek election and who is eligible to vote, the structure of the self governing authority and its ambit of responsibility.

EXPECT CREATION OF ‘WORKING GROUPS’

U.S. sources close to the conference told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that they expected this round of talks to result in the creation of “working groups,” meaning apparently, subcommittees, each to deal with a specific issue involved in the creation of Palestinian autonomy. If that is achieved during the roughly 36 hours allocated for this negotiating session, Strauss will have chalked up a notable success for his no-nonsense approach.

But the feeling as the talks started was that any substantive progress will have to await the outcome of next week’s scheduled summit meeting between Premier Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat in Alexandria. Both sides seem to be depending upon the two leaders to reach some sort of compromise in the course of their private conversations.

As far as Israel is concerned however its apposition to the Egyptian plan was reaffirmed by the negotiating teem which met under the chairmanship of Begin before leaving for Alexandria yesterday. A number of Egyptian suggestions including the declaration of principles, were rejected on grounds that they went beyond the Camp David frameworks and the joint letter of Begin and Sadat which accompanied the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Israeli sources said privately that the U.S. negotiators seem inclined toward Israel’s “practical approach” despite Strauss assertions that at this stage he favors neither plan.

SAYS CARTER IS COMMITTED TO PEACE PROCESS

The American envoy emphasized in his opening statement today that his participation was “physical evidence of the commitment” of President Carter personally and the U.S. as a nation to the continuation of the Mideast peace process He said he looked forward to the U.S. playing “a full, hopefully fair, constructive, reasonable and creative (role of) partner” in the talks.

Strauss was flanked by a top level American team of Middle East experts, including the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Alfred Atherton, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs Harold Saunders, State Department legal aide Herbert Hansell, and Strauss deputy, Ambassador James Leonard.

Strauss said that he and Leonard “feel you have set the stage for breakthrough rather than breakdown, as Dr. Burg has said, and we shall have it.” He was referring to the opening remarks of Interior Minister Yosef Burg, chairman of the Israeli delegation, who expressed hope for a “breakthrough rather than a breakdown” in this round of talks. Both Burg and Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil, head of the Egyptian delegation, called Strauss presence “enriching and enhancing the panorama.” Khalil said “We hope we are going to reach a new progress…”

Burg and Khalil conferred privately for almost a half-hour before the session got underway. They met at the San Stefano Hotel where the Israeli delegation is quartered. Since the last session, the Egyptians installed air conditioning in the suites occupied by the Israeli and American delegations. The Egyptian team is staying at the more luxurious Ealastin Hotel. The Israelis refused to take rooms there because of the political connotation of the name, which means Palestine.

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