Egypt: US must put firm hand on Israel

Furious and despondent Egyptian negotiators, playing host to Israel in now-redundant autonomy talks here, have concluded that only tough American pressure on the Israelis at April summit talks in Washington can salvage a faltering Mideast peace process.

But some Egyptian officials are wondering out loud whether President Carter can be tough enough after his twin primary election setbacks March 25 in New York and Connecticut.

A conference communique and news conference statements from the three delegation heads suggested that the Alexandria talks had concentrated on ways of speeding the pace of the autonomy talks once the Washington summit meetings have been held.

The delegates said that misunderstandings, some of them "fundamental," had been cleared during the latest meeting. But several of the thornier issues apparently were not ciscussed in the Alexandria negotiations -- including, the chief Egyptian delegate said, the issue of Israeli settlements.

Chief United States negotiator Sol Linowitz and his team, caught between rigid Egyptian and Israeli stands but perceptibly more empathetic toward Cairo, were also focusing hopes for a breakthrough on Mr. Carter's planned meetings with the two countries' leaders next month.

One US official confided frankly that he entertained little hope of progress at the one-day ministerial talks March 27 in Alexandria, held in the cavernous San Stefano Hotel amid thrashing gusts from the Mediterranean. The talks were simply "part of the process leading to the meetings in Washington," he said.

At issue is the future of some 1.3 million Palestinians in the Israeli- occupied West Bank of Jordan and the Gaza Strip, destined to get "full autonomy" under the elastically worded Camp David accords of September 1978.

For Israel, autonomy would apply to "people, not land." The Israelis would retain contol of water, state lands, and security. The controversial campaign of further Jewish settlements on the West Bank theoretically could continue. Anything less, Israeli negotiators maintain, would raise the danger of an eventual Palestinian state and pose a mortal danger to Israel's security.

For Egypt, the "full autonomy" envisaged at Camp David becomes a joke under Israeli rules. Autonomous Palestinians, Egyptian officials argue, must enjoy legislative authority. They must control local land and other resources. Jewish settlement must stop. And in the negotiations, Israeli "security" claims cannot be allowed to provide a blanket excuse for rejecting any concessions.

But perhaps the thorniest issue concerns the holy city of Jerusalem, whose Jordanian-controlled eastern half was captured by Israel along with the adjacent West Bank in 1967.

Israel, barred access to Judaism's holiest shrine during the previous period of Jordanian control, promptly annexed the captured area and has declared that a city also sacred to Muslims and Christians will remain its "eternal and undivided capital."

Egypt -- and the US -- reject Israel's unilateral annexation of Jerusalem. That issue always was meant to be tackled much later, but Egypt demands at least that east Jerusalem's 100,000 Palestinians be allowed to vote in any eventual autonomy elections. Israel says no.

"It's all in President Carter's hands now," an Egyptian negotiator told The Monitor. "We have been negotiating now for about ten months, and Israel has given virtually nothing on any issue."

"The Israelis keep building West Bank settlements, even with the world agreed that this violates international law," added another Egyptian official. "And when we want to challenge them on anything in these talks, it all of a sudden becomes a threat to Israel security."

At the final news conference, both the Egyptian and Israeli chief delegates appeared to have acceded to an American desire to avoid public confrontation ahead of the summit.

But one Egyptian negotiator noted privately that "the question of whether or not to go public with an anger and a disappointment [in Israeli policy] that we obviously feel will be essentially a political one."

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