Balance swings to Egypt in talks with Israel

For the first time since the whole, troubled process began, Egypt seems ready to enjoy a round of Palestinian autonomy talks. The feeling among officials here is that the political barometer, at least for now, has suddenly shifted: that a combination of factors has swung the major pressure for negotiating progress away from Egypt and onto Israel.

One Egyptian negotiator, his relaxed air in sharp contrast to the Egyptian mood before earlier rounds of the US-sponsored talks, joked, ''I can't say I'm distressed at the thought of Israel stewing in its own brew.'' He quickly explained that Cairo was as interested as Israel in getting an early agreement, but no longer felt it necessary to seek speed for speed's sake.

Among the factors seen as shifting the negotiating balance with the approach of resumed ministerial-level talks Nov. 11 are these:

* The assassination of President Sadat, six months before Israel's scheduled final withdrawal from the occupied Sinai.

* The near cease-fire in the war of words between Egypt and fellow Arabs since the Sadat murder.

* Renewed attention focused on Saudi Arabia's proposal of an alternative peace plan for the Palestinians, first put forward in early August, envisaging a full-fledged Palestinian state and not just the ''full autonomy'' agreed at Camp David.

* The US, West European, and Arab welcome -- in varying degrees -- for the Saudi proposal.

All of this seems likely to prompt concern among some Israelis that Egypt, come next spring, could ''take the Sinai and run,'' moving away from stalled Palestinian autonomy talks in favor of support for something closer to the Saudi plan.

All Egyptian officials, on all levels, and in all forms, have been stressing they have no such intention. The Egyptians insist they will remain fully wedded to the Camp David process even after Israel's final Sinai pullout. They say that if other Arabs want a rapprochement with Egypt, it can come only on the basis of the Camp David accords.

But as one official here put it privately, a measure of ''unjustified'' Israeli doubt on this score could prove a good thing, in that it would seem to give Israel more reason than in the past to move for a breakthrough on the autonomy talks.

An Egyptian negotiator added that, while Cairo is firmly ''committed to Camp David,'' the Saudi initiative and other countries' response to it remain ''a part of the regional environment'' that will inevitably loom in the background of the autonomy talks. He seemed not at all disappointed by that prospect.

Combined with the fact that hard-line Arab pressure on Egypt has eased in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's inauguration, the perceived shift of negotiating pressure onto Israel has allowed Egypt to take an unprecedentedly detached view of the coming talks.

The Nov. 11 session was scheduled at Israel's request after the Sadat assassination. This is seen, at the very least, as indicating Israel is anxious to demonstrate renewed momentum in the negotiating process. Cairo officials say it is too early to tell whether this will involve a softened Israeli position on such stalemated issues as West Bank settlements and the future of Jerusalem. If it does, the Egyptians say they will eagerly join in an effort for an early breakthrough.

If not, one negotiator here remarked, ''We will keep working seriously with the other two parties, Israel and the US, toward an agreement. We are not in a hurry. We are relaxed. We will keep working for whatever time is needed to reach an accord.''

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