Egypt delays ties with Israel as autonomy talks lag

In this seacoast capital of Sinai, a bright green prefabricated customs house has gone up about four kilometers west of the city center. In the brisk desert sunshine, soldiers and officials chat amicably in small groups, waiting to receive the first visitors from Israel in more than 30 years.

So far, though, they have not been very busy. As of Sunday, Jan. 27, the land border between Egypt and Israel at El Arish has been open, but by Monday morning only a handful of Israelis -- and no Egyptians -- had actually taken advantage of the new and once unthinkable opportunity to cross over.

Border officials on both sides of the battered oil drums that now separate the former enemies say the constraints are technical and not political.

But, back in the capital, Egypt on Jan. 28 unexpectedly asked Israel to delay the sending of its diplomatic team to Cairo until mid- February. The explanation was that Egypt would send its mission to Israel after Feb. 15 and wanted the Israeli arrival to be at the same time.

As the two governments have yet to exchange ambassadors and consuls, Egyptians and Israelis must apply for visas to visit each others' country by telex sent through their foreign ministries. Officials believe it is the complicated telex procedure that has kept civilian traffic across the land border to a trickle.

It probably will be another month, by which time embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv should have been set up, before many Israelis will be able to take the four-hour drive from El Arish across northern Sinai to the Suez Canal and Ismailia.

At the end of the first leg of the journey, as one nears the Suez Canal, there are the ugly rusted remnants of past wars -- tanks, trucks, barbed wire. Just before the canal, there is the town of El Qantara, with many of its homes, mosques, churches, and stores still in ruin, and the Bar-Lev line which until the 1973 war was an Israeli fortification on Egyptian soil.

Both in and out of Egyptian government circles, meanwhile, there is serious dissatisfaction with the current status of the negotiations on Palestinian autonomy that were mandated by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the Camp David accords.

Many Egyptians accuse Israel of trying to restrict self-rule for the 1.1 million Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip to only the most mundane of administrative matters.

President Sadat, however, while maintaining that Egypt is still committed to securing more than simply administrative autonomy for the Palestinians, has said the Israelis have been acting "honorably."

In a speech to Parliament Jan. 28, Mr. Sadat noted that Israel now has withdrawn from 80 percent of the Sinai Peninsula according to the treaty. "Once they put down their signature," he said, "they're committed to their signature . . . and they fulfill their commitments honorably."

Mr. Sadat's sentiments came as Egypt appeared to be slowing down the normalizing of relations with Israel. Prior to the speech, Egyptian officials and commentators had indicated that trade, cultural, and tourist relations would be fully implemented only in response to Israeli flexibility on Palestinian autonomy.

None of that sort of thinking, however, was evident on the border at El Arish.

"From our side, the peace is real," said an affable Egyptian lieutenant in his one-room office opposite the customs house. "I know the Israelis have refused autonomy to the Palestinians, but it seems to me that through normalization we'll find a diplomatic solution."

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