Behind Sadat's suspension of Palestine autonomy talks

Talks on Palestinian autonomy between Egypt and Israel are currently suspended by virtue of a surprise decision by President Sadat, but Egyptian negotiators believe they won't be in limbo permanently.

"There's pause, and there will be a reassessment," one of them said. "But it's not a permanent rupture. It's not a breakdown. The talks will continue."

Just when Egypt will agree to resume the talks, and under what conditions, is known only to President Sadat, and he is expected to reveal his plans on Wednesday when he makes a major policy statement to the Egyptian Parliament.

The options before Mr. Sadat at this juncture include calling for the transfer of the negotiations to the United Nations or to a forum arranged by the European Community (EC). Both the UN and the EC have been more openly sympathetic to the Palestinians than the United States, and President Sadat therefore could count on more pressure being brought on Israel there than he now can expect from the Carter administration in an election year.

There also is a chance that he will try to mend some fences with moderate Arab states that so far have gone along with hard-liners in denouncing his peace treaty with Israel.

One Egyptian official, however, discounted the likelihood that Mr. Sadat would try to tamper with the negotiating mechanism agreed to at Camp David in 1978.

Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil has said a resumption would be futile without summit- level contacts, if not an actual summit meeting, among Egypt, Israel, and the United States. He said the suspension was in response to preconditions laid down by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the last round of the negotiations, namely, that Israel alone should control security in the occupied Jordan West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sadat's unexpected and indefinite interruption of the talks, which he himself agreed to intensify during last month's summit with President Carter, has all but nullified the mutually accepted May 26 target date. One negotiator admitted that nothing can be expected between now and then but said he and his colleagues are prepared to keep talking beyond that date.

He strongly denied that the parties will sign some sort of face-saving document by the 26th in order to give the impression that agreement on some points had been reached.

"Sign what?" he asked. "There is nothing to sign. We have reached nothing."

Mr. Sadat has said he wanted time to reflect on the results of the last fruitless session and to consult with his advisers. But the suspension, according to diplomats and officials here, may have other objectives. Among them:

* Injecting a note of anxiety into the negotiations, which had become bogged down in a morass of committees and subcommittees.

* Signaling to the Americans his impatience and dissatisfaction with their role in the talks.

* Giving himself time to undertake a major Cabinet reshuffle.

By taking this step, Mr. Sadat has dramatically raised the visibility of the talks and of their failure and has told Israel and the United States that his patience does have limits. Egyptian negotiators returned from the latest session clearly displeased that the Americans did not try to establish common ground on the security issue and did not support the security plan they had proposed.

Nevertheless, Egyptian officials, and reportedly President Sadat as well, say they realize that President Carter will not be able to pressure the Israelis into making significant concessions to the Palestinians until after the November election.

But, said one official, "We'll continue to negotiate before, during, and after the elections." Monitor correspondent Ned Temko comments:

President Sadat's decision to suspend Palestinian autonomy talks with Israel is a tactic he has used before -- but this time Middle East analysts suspect, the Egyptian leader may have to wait a lot longer -- and settle for a lot less.

(In January 1978, when he severed talks with Israel, the Egyptian leader had to wait until the Camp David summit conference, eight months later, to get what he was angling for.)

The open question now is whether waiting longer and settling for less will be enough for the mercurial Egyptian President. This time:

* The issues are tougher. Back in 1978, negotiation centered on a separate Egyptian-Israeli treaty both countries deeply desired. Now US, Egyptian, and Israeli officials are talking about the Palestinians, the very core of three decades of Middle East conflict.

* The Carter administration is, or at least looks, weaker. Mr. Carter is understood to share the Egyptian view that Palestinian autonomy on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip would be all but meaningless if Israel keeps planting Jewish settlements there and insists on continued control of most major functions of government.

But, to get Israel to do anything about it, PResident Carter has to appear strong -- and headed for re-election in November. Instead, he has just sustained an embarrassing failure in efforts to free the American hostages in Iran. He has lost former secretary of state Cyrus Vance, who, despite the President's public insinuations to the contrary, was widely viewed both in Israel and the Arab world as the most "statesmanlike" member of the Carter administration.

And Mr. Carter's re-election seems, from this distance at least, uncertain.

Egyptian Prime Minister and chief autonomy negotiator Mustapha Khalil told The Christian Science Monitor that one major reason for Mr. Sadat's decision was Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's public pronouncement that Israelis must retain full control of West Bank and Gaza "security" under any autonomy accord.

This, to Mr. Khalil and other Egyptian officials, seemed the latest in a string of virtual Israeli ultimatums on central autonomy issues.

Yet whether on security, Israeli settlement, or other key negotiation questions, there was no guarantee that even energetic intervention by President Carter would persuade the Israelis to budge.

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