Unsnag the autonomy talks

Egypt, Israel, and the United States have all committed themselves to resuming the Palestinian autonomy talks under the Camp David agreement. This seems to be the one viable diplomatic avenue for making further steps of progress toward peace. Yet what hope there remains for successful talks is further strained when Israel and Egypt cannot even agree on where to hold them.

It is hard to see how Israel can defend its position that the negotiations take place in turn in Cairo, Washington, and Jerusalem. Jerusalem, after all, is itself a part -- and a very passionate part -- of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The Israeli Knesset in 1980 formally annexed East Jerusalem, which was captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, and said the united capital will never again be divided. That may one day be worked out legally through negotiations. But no government today considers the status of Jerusalem resolved. Moreover, one of the issues that has stalemated the West Bank talks is the Egyptian demand -- and Israeli refusal -- that Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem have the same voting and other rights as those in the West Bank and Gaza.

For President Mubarak of Egypt to accept Jerusalem as a venue for the autonomy talks, therefore, would be to appear to recognize Israel's claim to sovereignty over East Jerusalem -- a move that would anger Arab leaders and make it even more difficult to draw them into the peace process. It is thus not surprising that US envoy Richard Fairbanks has been unable to budge the Egyptians on this point of principle.

Israel's courageous withdrawal from Sinai has helped fuel hopes that, for all the difficulties involved, the two sides will seriously tackle the next stage of Camp David. It would be sad if Israel early on dissipated what good will it has won through its stand on Sinai by insisting on an inappropriate site for the autonomy negotiations. There are problems enough without creating such an early snag.

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