The Israeli Cabinet decided yesterday to resume peace talks with Egypt and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman is expected to return to Cairo later this week to head the Israeli negotiating team.
There was strong speculation here that Weizman would meet with Egyptain President Anwar Sadat before Sadat leaves for Washington and talks with President Carter at the end of the week, but this could not be officially confirmed.
The Cabinet decision, which had been expected, was unanimous, according to an official spokesman.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin had announced Saturday that Israel was prepared to return to Cairo to resume the military portion of the peace talks. The Cabinet voted a week ago not to return the Israeli delegation to Cairo following Sadat's abrupt decision to pull Egyptian delegates out of the political portion of the talks in Jerusalem.
Begin had complained bitterly about what he said were anti-Semitic attacks in the Egyptian press. Begin is still being attacked in the Egyptian press but the prime minister told the Cabinet yesterday that the government should distinguish between personal attakcs against him, which he said were a professional hazard, and attacks against the Jewish people as a whole, which he said had abated.
Nevertheless, the government's decision had less to do with the Egyptian press than with its desire to again renew direct, high-leve contacts with Egypt, which had broken down in acrimony so suddenly 10 days ago.
At its meeting yesterday, the Israeli Cabinet also named a replacement for retiring military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Mordecai Gur. Maj. Gen. Rafael Eytan, 49, commander of Israel's northern Gur as leader of Israel's armed forces in April.
Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alfred Atherton Jr. returned from Jordan yesterday to meet with Israeli leaders before going on to Cairo.
Atherton will carry with him to Cairo what the Israelis describe as a compromise to President Carter's compromise on the wording of a declaration of principles for a Middle East peace. Israel was uncomfortable with the phrase "legitimate rights" for the Palestinians because of the uncertainty over how the phrase might be interpreted in practical application. Israel also found a discussion of the Palestinian problem "in all aspects" unacceptable because it would include Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza for whom Israel does not wish to accept responsibility.
The fate of the political talks will probably have to wait until Sadat has met with President Carter. Israel assumes that some new format will have to be found if they are to continue but Israel intends to insist on reciprocity. Israel does not want to see the whole show moved to Egypt and will insist that part of whatever talks resume be held in Israel.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance reportedly told Sadat after the collapse of the Jerusalem talks that a little stability in the negotiating process might be a good thing. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem had indeed provided a psychological breakthrough but too many shocks would make the Israelis overly cautious and wary.
The Israelis worry about what they see as Sadat's unpredictability. They fear that in the political sphere he does not give his Foreign Ministry enough authority to make decisions and the Israelis fear that Sadat has received a false impression of the political realities in Israel.
While Sadat believed that the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate partner in the Middle East would sweep away most if not all Israeli fears, the Israelis will continue to explore the practical ramifications of every move they are expected or prepared to make. To Sadat this may seem like needless haggling but, for all their military strength, the Israelis feel themselves to be at a long term strategic disadvantage and they can be expected to proceed with a caution that will be maddening to Egyptian negotiators and, at times, to the Americans as well.
In another development, U.S. News and World Report published an interview with Begin yesterday in which the Israeli prime minister recalled Sadat's pledge that there would be no more war or bloodshed in the Middle East initiated by Egpyt. "That pledge was an absolute one to which I responded in kind," Begin is quoted as saying. "For my part, I will never go back on that antiwar pledge."