Israel, Egypt and the U.S. Resume Talks on Palestinian Autonomy

After an 18-month suspension, Israel, Egypt and the United States resumed negotiations today on Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The three delegations, meeting at the Mena House Hotel near Cairo, delivered brief opening statements in which they pledged good will and redoubled efforts to move the talks towards agreement.

The months of spasmodic negotiations in the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in early 1979, failed to achieve significant progress. But the head of the Egyptian delegation, Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, said in his opening remarks that “a new hope” had now arisen for the success of the talks “with the new American Administration and the recent elections in Israel.”

The key figure on the Israeli team is the new Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon. His evolving new policies on the West Bank have aroused the interest of both the Egyptian and American delegations, which apparently share Sharon’s intentions.

INTEREST IN SHARON’S WEST BANK PLAN

In recent weeks there has been a wave of reports in the Israeli media, inspired by Defense Ministry circles, to the effect that Sharon propose to introduce major liberalizing measures on the West Bank with the avowed aim of wooing moderate local leaders into the peace process.

As the Israeli delegation left for Cairo last night, Israel radio and television elaborated on Sharon’s plan to separate between purely military security affairs on the West Bank, which will remain in the hands of the army, and civilian control with as many as possible Palestinian civilians in high administrative positions.

Egypt’s Minister of State, Butros Ghali, a key presence throughout the peace process with Israel, publicly welcomed Sharon’s moves. In a statement last night, Ghali called on Israel to provide “confidence-building measures” that would “give hope” to the Palestinians and thereby improve the negotiating atmosphere.

Asked if such measures should include the return of the two exiled West Bank mayors, Mohamed Milhem of Halhoul and Fahd Kawasme of Hebron, to their homes, the Egyptian diplomat said this was “certainly” the kind of thing we had in mind.

U.S. IS ‘FULL PARTNER’ IN THE PEACE PROCESS

Speaking for the U.S. at the formal session today, Alfred Atherton, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, reemphasized “the commitment of the Reagan Administration to remain … a full partner” in the peace process. “We are here to play a full role,” he said, “to do all we can to help the process move forward.”

His remarks apparently sought to allay concerns voiced in Israel over the fact that Secretary of State Alexander Haig neglected to refer to the Camp David process in his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

Atherton also sought to allay concerns — felt both in Israel and Egypt — that the U.S. had weakened its interest in the autonomy talks by not designating a special envoy to head its delegations, as was the case under the Carter Administration. He said that he and the Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, were co-chairmen of the U.S. team and this showed that “we are redoubling our efforts … we’re here with two heads of delegation …”

The talks will continue through tomorrow afternoon, ending with a press conference. Earlier this week officials of the three sides worked out a schedule of fairly intensive negotiations on the working groups and the ministerial levels which will take the autonomy talks through to mid-January; by then the negotiators hope to be able to point to meaningful progress.

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