What is Palestinian autonomy? Haig tries to bridge gulf between Egypt, Israel

Stage right, defiant Sinai settlers.

Stage left, Israel's Menachem Begin waiting for April 25 to honor Camp David, clear the stage, and hand the last parcel of Sinai to Egypt.

But backstage, out of the limelight, is the real drama: Palestinian autonomy.

Less colorful perhaps than the desert hothouses of Yamit and ''the great and terrible wilderness'' of Sinai, ''autonomy'' is much more challenging, substantial, and explosive an issue.

Whatever its meaning (and the debate over what it means is most of the problem) the word ''autonomy,'' in the current diplomatic situation at least, seems to contain the key to the future status of the 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli military occupation.

It is the issue of autonomy, and not worries about the 103 Israeli families squatting near Yamit in the Sinai, that has drawn US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to Egypt and Israel this week.

This is the gulf Mr. Haig must bridge: Does ''autonomy'' mean, as Israeli Interior Minister Yosef Burg contended in a recent interview, giving the Palestinians ''80 to 90 percent of the administration of a state, excluding foreign policy and security''? Or is it, as Egypt argues, ''self-determination'' for the Palestinians, leading almost certainly to the birth of the new nation of Palestine?

From outside the Haig mission, diplomats in the Middle East are saying that ultimately the controversy over the Yamit squatters is an internal one for Israel. Very few diplomats -- and indeed, very few Egyptian, Palestinian, and even Palestine Liberation Organization officials -- doubt Mr. Begin's ability to evict the settlers and meet his treaty obligations.

(According to the Jerusalem Post, a senior Israeli official confirmed Jan. 13 that a hitherto secret agreement had been reached with Egypt providing for the delayed withdrawal of agricultural equipment and installations from Yamit. The Israeli official said the understanding had been requested of Egypt as a means of avoiding clashes between the Israeli Army and Israeli settlers in the Sinai who oppose the withdrawal.)

With the curtain all but rung down on that drama, however, analysts believe the Egyptian-Israeli autonomy talks will go nowhere unless there is compromise in either Egypt's or Israel's position.

A senior Israeli official said Jan. 13 that the autonomy issue ''will have a central place'' in the US-Israeli talks during Mr. Haig's visit. He admitted that ''there are differences between Israel and Egypt on the essence of autonomy. And more than the practical details, it is this that must be worked out.''

Defending his government's position, the official said Israel bases its concept of autonomy on ''patterns that have been established elsewhere.'' He cited the Tyrol region of Italy, which was made an autonomous part of Italy following talks between Austria and Italy after World War II.

''Patterns have been applied elsewhere,'' the official argues. ''It is not a revolution, it is an accepted process.''

But critics of the Israeli approach contend that Israel -- unlike Italy and the Tyrol, or indeed any other example of regional autonomy -- would discourage Israeli citizenship for residents of the autonomous West Bank and Gaza. This is because Zionism holds that Israel be a purely Jewish state.

Moreover, the 100,000 Palestinians living in east Jerusalem would not even participate in the ''autonomous council'' Israel would establish to govern the territories. This is because Israel considers east Jerusalem an indivisible part of Israel proper.

While maintaining this hard and fast position, Israeli officials worry that once the final segment of Sinai is handed back to Egypt on April 25, Egypt will no longer feel under any compulsion to try to reconcile its view of autonomy with Israel's. That would mean the end of Camp David as a diplomatic mechanism, though the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would still be in effect.

''We hope the peace process is not just a return of territory,'' the senior official said. ''We do hope that with the Haig visit, autonomy talks (between Egypt and Israel) will follow and there will be some movement in the process, some speed gained.''

Western diplomats here and in the Arab world have been pessimistic in recent months about the ability of the autonomy talks to yield results that can please at least some Arabs under Israeli occupation or standing at Israel's borders.

A diplomat in Beirut told the Monitor recently: ''I worry that without some movement -- or at least the appearance of movement -- the situation here could look hopeless and the Palestinians or the Kateb (Lebanese Maronites) could get desperate. These matters (the Palestinian question and the Lebanese civil war) are very much bound together.''

There is another great worry. It involves what Mr. Begin might do if autonomy negotiations break down. An editorial in the Jan. 12 issue of the Jerusalem Post put it this way:

''Already Israel has secured, for either military or civilian use, over one-third of the land area of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and according to one unconfirmed report some thought is being given by Mr. Begin's government to applying Israel's 'law, jurisdiction, and administration' to these Jewish-settled holdings before April 25.''

Extension of ''law, jurisdiction, and administration'' was how the Begin government euphemistically referred to the ''annexation'' of the Golan Heights late last year.

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