Cairo (Nov. 11)
Israel’s three senior Cabinet ministers began two days of talks with top level Egyptian officials today aimed at achieving a “breakthrough” on the “key issues” that are blocking agreement on autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Interior Minister Yosef Burg arrived here last night.
They and Egyptians of equal rank have been empowered by their governments to make on-the-spot decisions in order to move the autonomy negotiations forward. Israel has made it clear that it would like to reach agreement, at least on a declaration of principles, before its final withdrawal from Sinai next April.
Before coming to Cairo, Burg, who has been Israel’s chief negotiator in the autonomy talks, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee that in “a month or two” it would become clear whether Egypt is indeed as serious as Israel in aspiring to an agreed “declaration of principles” before April.
Sharon also said earlier this week that he belives this is possible. But he complained that the U.S. “drift” toward the Saudi Arabian eightpoint peace plan, which Israel utterly rejects, has become the “main obstacle” to an agreement on autonomy.
Sharon acknowledged reassuring statements by Secretary of State Alexander Haig that Washington remains committed to the Camp David process. He said he “hoped” that was so but was concerned by “confusing” signals from the U.S.
DISTURBED BY U.S. INDECISION
The Israelis are clearly disturbed by the Reagan Administration’s failure so far to name a special U.S. Ambassador to the autonomy talks, a role fulfilled for the Carter Administration first by Robert Strauss and later by Sol Linowitz. The U.S. is represented at the talks opening here today by its Ambassadors to Israel and Egypt, Samuel Lewis and Alfred Atherton, respectively. While both have long experience in Middle Eastern affairs they are of diplomatically lower rank than the Israeli and Egyptian negotiators.
The agenda of the current meeting includes the “scope, jurisdiction and structure” of the selfgoverning authority — administrative council — for the West Bank and Gaza. Premier Menachem Begin has said that if a breakthrough can be made on those matters, the other disputed issues such as security, land and water rights could be more easily resolved.
CLASH ON ISSUE OF VOTING
Before leaving Israel, Burg clashed with former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, a leader of the opposition Labor Party, who had proposed that Israel allow East Jerusalem Arabs to vote for members of the self-governing authority on the West Bank. Rabin argued that since it is Israel’s declared position that autonomy applies to the people of the territory, not the territory itself, such a concession would not weaken Israel’s hold over East Jerusalem.
Burg disputed this, warning that allowing the East Jerusalem Arabs to vote in West Bank elections would set a dangerous precedent for Palestinians living elsewhere, in Lebanon for example, to demand the right to participate in the elections. Rabin countered by warning that there would be no progress on autonomy unless Israel showed some flexibility. He said the West Bank and Gaza Arabs should be given control over all areas of their lives, except security.