The snail's-pace negotiations on Palestinian autonomy between Israel, Egypt, and the United States are being conducted on at least three levels: formal plenary sessions, practical "working groups," and personal contacts away from the bargaining table.
It is at the person-to-person level that Ambassador sol Linowitz, the senior American autonomy negotiator, seems to be making the most headway.
He has succeeded in bringing Jordan into the multifaceted dialogue (by meeting Jordan's King Hussein in London before arriving in the Middle East for the ninth round of tripartite talks) and by conferring in Gaza with Mayor Rashad a-Shawa, thereby bringing in the Palestinians themselves.
Both conversations, especially the one with the Gaza mayor, constitute a diplomatic breakthrough for the US envoy, enabling him to introduce genuine Jordanian and Palestineian viewpoints to the plenum on the basis of recent contact. By the same token, they add a degree of weight to the Linowitz ideas on how to achieve a viable formula for a Palestinian self-governing authority.
And the fact that Mr. Linowitz is scheduled to stop in Saudi Arabia and Morocco en route back to Washington signifies a further broadening of the otherwise stilted, rather arcane, plenary discussions.
Mr. Linowitz was expected to present new American ideas to his Israeli and Egyptian colleagues at the actual negotiating session, the most interesting of which is a proposal for gradual transfer of power from the incumbent Israeli military government in the occupied areas to the projected Palestinian authority.
This, according to qualified observers, would enable the autonomous Palestinians to win the confidence of their Israeli neighbors through scrupulous implementation of the authority vested in them.
There also appears to be a new note of flexibility on the Israeli side with regard to Egyptian President Sadat's suggestion that autonomy be put into operation first in the Gaza Strip and later in the West Bank. Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin reportedly would agree if the autonomy plan as a whole is clearly defined beforehand.
Mr. Linowitz' penchant for behind-the- scenes work as against official negotiating sessions is best demonstrated by his meeting with Mayor Shawa. Not only was the Gaza political leader present, but also one of the West Bank's most dynamic politicans, Dr. Hatem Abu-Ghazale.
Mayor Shawa pointedly explained afterward that he acted with the full knowledge and consent of the Palestine Liberation Organization, indicating that the PLO has been drawn into the dialogue, albeit indirectly.
"They didn't ask me to meet [him]," the mayor said, "but I told them I was going to meet him. They didn't oppose my meeting anyone. They know my stand."
The mayor's comment contains an implicit hint that the PLO must take the political views of incumbent mayors in the occupied zones into consideration. This is what evidently took place when Mayor Shawa conferred recently with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Beirut, Lebanon.
The mayor's public position, in line with PLO thinking, is the granting of "self-determination and the establishment of our sovereign Palestinian state." Thus he denied "breaking ranks" with other mayors who declined to meet Mr. Linowitz, saying it was just "a difference in tactics."