Clash at Autonomy Talks

The sixth plenary session of the autonomy talks opened in Alexandria today with a sharp clash between the Egyptian and Israeli delegations over the Israeli Cabinet’s recent decision to permit private citizens to purchase land on the West Bank and Gaza Strip The talks were adjourned briefly and then resumed in closed session.

Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil, head of the Egyptian ministerial negotiating team, denounced the decision as an obstacle to the efforts to reach an overall peace settlement in the Middle East. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Butros Ghali said the decision created a crisis of confidence between the two countries and would further discourage the Palestinians or any Arabs from joining the peace process.

He observed that the purpose of the current talks is to set up an autonomous Palestinian authority in the territories but the decision to allow land purchases by Israelis created a fait accompli. “What is, then, the purpose of the talks?” Ghali asked.

Israeli Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir explained the reasons behind the lifting of the 12-year ban on private land purchases in the territories and noted that it had been on the Cabinet’s agenda for a long time. Interior Minister Yosef Burg, chairman of the Israeli delegation, said the decision pertained only to land that would be sold voluntarily. “It is only a step in the process of peace which will help the normalization of relations in the region,” he said.

James Leonard, the American representative at the autonomy talks, recalled that the State Department has expressed opposition to the Israeli move and “this remains the American position on the issue.”

EXPECTED TO TAKE UP U.S. PROPOSAL

The Egyptians and Israelis reportedly agreed that their dispute over the land purchase decision should not interfere with the progress of the autonomy negotiations. The Israel Radio correspondent covering the talks at the San Stephano Hotel in Alexandria, claimed that the clash at the opening public session had in fact been planned in advance and that the heads of the two delegations agreed at an earlier meeting that both parties would express their differences.

The negotiators are expected to take up an American proposal to expand their working groups into several teams of experts on all aspects of autonomy by the end of this year. An agreement to that effect was reportedly reached earlier this month when Robert Strauss, President Carter’s special envoy to the Middle East, visited the region.

Egypt has indicated that it will raise subjects of substance such as the legal powers of the Palestinian administration in the autonomy framework and the participation of East Jerusalem Arabs in the elections to the autonomy institutions. Israel for its part wants to limit the present talks to technicalities such as the projected timetable and the nature of the additional working groups proposed by Strauss.

EGYPT’S PROPOSAL ON JERUSALEM

Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that Egypt has proposed the division of Jerusalem into national boroughs, all under one united City Council. A similar idea was, in fact advanced after the Six-Day War by Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek. According to Haaretz, Egypt believes its proposal will solve the problem of granting Jerusalem Arabs a measure of self-government while keeping the city united. In the Egyptian view, only an early solution of the Jerusalem problem could give the Middle East peace process new momentum.

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