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Special Analysis the Linkage-timetable Issue

November 28, 1978
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

How did the issue of the linkage-timetable emerge to bedevil the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks just when it seemed that a treaty was at the point of conclusion? A visit to Cairo frankly has not enabled this reporter to understand any better, how the problem evolved. But it has helped to underscore the complexities of the issue, of Egypt’s position and of the inter-Arab pressures and considerations that affect it.

Israelis have certain theories as to why President Anwar Sadat felt obliged at this time to jack up his demands and is now pressing for a specific timetable for implementation of the Palestinian autonomy scheme. They cite the Baghdad summit meeting of the rejectionist states at which Saudi Arabia unexpectedly threw its weight behind the hardliners. Some Israelis, like former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, are also criticizing their own government for rejecting, a month ago, the loose linkage language in the preamble of the draft treaty that it accepted belatedly last week.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Butros Ghali, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency over the weekend that the timetable linkage issue was, in fact, discussed at Camp David and that it figured in the Blair House talks in Washington from their outset more than a month ago. Other Egyptian diplomats in a position to know affirm with utter conviction that the timetable was not a last-minute escalation but a concept that was present throughout the negotiations.

The Israeli negotiators, on the other hand, expressed astonishment when Egypt raised the issue publicly last month. A timetable is nowhere mentioned in the Camp David frameworks for peace and to that extent Israel is correct in branding it a “deviation” from Camp David. But, assuming it was discussed at Camp David, did the Israeli negotiators believe the issue would simply fade away if they ignored it? Or perhaps they felt that its omission from the frameworks, which Egypt signed, meant the Egyptians were prepared to drop it.

Cairo says its needs the timetable in order to coax the Palestinians to the negotiating table by proving to them that Israel is sincere about autonomy. The initial negative reactions and suspicions of most West Bankers to the autonomy scheme was “predictable,” top Egyptian officials say.

But the Egyptians say, if they can present a specific timetable by which Israel commits itself to establish autonomy by a definite date, this would go a long way toward allaying the suspicions. The Palestinians would then be forced to concede that Camp David was not just a cover for a separate peace with Israel, as the Arab hardliners allege, but provided a genuine opportunity for them to advance toward political self-expression.

The Egyptian scenario appears to sound cogent and convincing, especially when it is accompanied by the knowing assurance that “just give us the timetable and leave it to us–we have the power to institute autonomy against the opposition of die-hard Palestinian extremists.” But Ghali himself is forced to concede that the Egyptians believed at Camp David–as did the U.S. and the Israelis–that the autonomy scheme could be set up and functioning within three months. Top U.S. policymakers briefed reporters to that effect the day after the Camp David conference ended.


The distinct lack of enthusiasm displayed on the West Bank in fact took Egypt and the U.S. by surprise. Washington would not have dispatched special Ambassador Alfred L. Atherton, followed by Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, to the West Bank had it expected so cool and even hostile a reception to the Camp David accords.

But if the three-month prognosis proved so ill-founded, does this not augur badly for the nine-month or 12-month forecast now made by Egypt in its linkage-timetable demands? There are two ready responses given in Cairo to this question, neither of them very reassuring from Israel’s standpoint.

The first is that it was Israel’s fault that the Camp David accords were so ungraciously received on the West Bank. Premier Menachem Begin’s statements about the future of that territory and his squabble with the U.S. over the duration of the freeze on settlements had the effect of reinforcing Palestinian suspicions which the “frame work for peace” and the autonomy agreement might have otherwise eased, the Egyptians contend.

The second response is that if, despite the timetable as evidence of the good intentions of Israel and Egypt, the West Bank still rejects the autonomy scheme, “then we (Egyptians) shall have done our best in our own eyes and the eyes of the Arab world.”

The rider often attached to this second line of reasoning is that the autonomy scheme should at least be implemented promptly in the Gaza Strip where Egypt, without question, has the necessary influence to gain its adoption by the local leadership and populace. This reasoning is further recommended for Israeli consideration by the added suggestion of some form of “insurance clause,” to be formulated by Israel, Egypt and the U.S., that would effectively prevent the peace treaty from being prejudiced if it proves impossible for objective reasons to apply autonomy on the West Bank.

Sadat’s former spokesman, Tahsin Basir, asserted yesterday that “man is not bound by texts, only by will and imagination.” Basir, currently Egypt’s Ambassador to the Arab League, was seeking to explain why Israel’s fear of a linkage-timetable was groundless. Probably — hopefully — the two sides, prodded by the Americans, will devise some “insurance clause” that, together with a whittled down form of timetable — perhaps couched in supportive rather than imperative terms — will be found acceptable.


Adding to the complexity of the linkage-timetable crisis is the Saudi Arabian factor, its mystery by no means elucidated by the soothing reassurances one hears from the Egyptians. Sadat, it is said, “laughed off” the Baghdad summit. But other sources say he was angered and disturbed by the spectacle of the Saudi Crown Prince Fahd lining up with the Iraqis and Syrians in condemnation of Egypt. The Iraqis themselves, it is widely conceded here, dealt Sadat an uncomfortable blow by their relative moderation at the summit meeting. He would have been better served, at least in the tactical short term, by a reiteration of their traditional fundamentalism.

In the long run, however, an Egyptian official observed wryly, Baghdad was a vindication of the Sadat peace initiative. It represented a recognition by the Arab world — including its most intransigent elements — that a political settlement is the only feasible solution of the Middle East conflict. But, meanwhile, the Saudis seem to have been influenced more by hardliners than the hardliners by them.

Every Egyptian in an official or semi-official capacity insists that the Baghdad meeting did not trigger a stiffening of Egypt’s negotiating demands. At the same time, officials here maintain that a linkage-timetable would assuage Saudi misgivings and bring them back behind the Camp David accords. A visitor familiar only from afar with inter-Arab statecraft, can only listen, report and try to understand.

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