Israel ready if autonomy talks fail

Israel is eager to show some movement in the talks on Palestinian autonomy. But it is equally determined to stand fast on key issues like Israeli control of Jerusalem and settlement of the occupied West Bank, officials here indicate.

Should these issues prevent an autonomy accord - as most diplomats here and in Cairo assume - the Israelis are expected to move to impose their own limited version of Palestinian autonomy.

Israeli officials assume that more radical Palestinians will boycott any such imposed autonomy. But they don't seem at all upset by that prospect.

And lest the United States or others seek to pressure Israel for wider autonomy provisions, Israeli leaders have been pointedly reminding outsiders of their ability to reshuffle the entire Mideast deck.

The Israelis, for instance, hint that they could respond militarily to alleged Palestinian cease-fire violations in neighboring Lebanon. Israeli radio reported Nov. 15 that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had given ''broad hints'' to the US ambassador that the ambassador would be ''surprised'' by coming developments in the Lebanese frontier area.

Recently resumed Israeli reconnaissance flights over Saudi Arabia are also viewed by some Israeli and foreign observel23lers as a form of notice that Israel, if pressured, can complicate US policy in the region.

The autonomy process has taken on added urgency for Israel in the aftermath of the assassination of Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

Partly because of a genuinely national bout of jitters over Sadat's death (and over subsequently strengthened US relations with Saudi Arabia), Prime Minister Menachem Begin is charting post-Sadat strategy with a rare degree of internal political backing. Whether this consensus will last remains to be seen.

But even if it doesn't, officials here suggest, Mr. Begin will stick to his emerging policy course.

''We feel we can make significant, apparent movement in the autonomy talks,'' one official said privately.

He declined to go into detail. But he did say that Israel was not prepared to make concessions on issues like West Bank settlements and the future of Jerusalem, which Israel's US and Egyptian negotiating partners privately see as the key to an accord.

Israel has declared the disputed holy city its united and eternal capital. It rejects Egyptian moves to allow Jerusalem's Arab population to participate in eventual autonomy elections.

The West Bank settlements - planted at an increasingly rapid pace since the signing of the Camp David accords three years ago - are also there to stay, Israeli officials say. Further settlement is planned.

The implication of private comments from Israeli officials is that any compromise from their side would center on: the logistical aspects of an autonomy scheme, and perhaps on ''confidence-building measures'' long sought by Egypt for more than 1 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But diplomats point out that Israel's vision of such measures still stops far short of what the Egyptians have in mind - a genuine loosening of political restraints in the occupied areas.

Israeli officials insist that an autonomy accord in keeping with their position remains possible, perhaps by deferring or finessing major issues that prove impossible to resolve.

Egyptian officials, at least for now, say they have no intention of dodging such issues. Unlike under the late Anwar Sadat, these officials now say there is no particular urgency for an agreement. All issues, they say, must be tackled. If this takes a long time, so be it.

Indeed, the latest round of the talks, just concluded in Cairo, suggested Egypt is settling back for prolonged negotiation.

But there are indications, meanwhile, that Israel may move on its own to implement autonomy in the occupied territories.

The Israelis have put a civilian in nominal control of the military government of the West Bank. They have created a number of ''village councils'' headed by the few, relatively minor Palestinian figures willing to cooperate.

At the same time, Israeli authorities have reacted firmly to recent trouble on the West Bank. Arab youths have hurled stones at Israeli vehicles. An armed settler was stabbed in the center of the predominantly Arab town of Hebron. (He then opened fire on his assailants.)

The Israelis have clashed with Arab demonstrators, detained various West Bank activists, confined others to their homes, cleared and then sealed or blown up houses belonging to suspects in the Hebron assault, and closed a West Bank university.

Egypt reportedly plans to deliver a note to Israel protesting the closure of Bir Zeit university and repeating earlier calls for a freer political climate in the occupied territories. The wide assumption among both Israeli and foreign political analysts is that the Begin government will not oblige.

Instead, the expectation here is that one of Israel's next steps will be to bestow higher rank on Palestinians already working in various civilian areas of the West Bank administration.

''Nothing will really change on the ground from all this,'' remarked one Israeli newspaper editor privately. ''There will be Palestinian autonomy on Israeli terms. The hope is that this will close the issue.''

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