Ambassador Alfred L. Atherton will resume his Middle East mediation effort this week in an effort to restart the stalled Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, but U.S. officials said there is little indication that a weekend statement from Jerusalem will move the talks along.
State Department spokesman Tom Reston, who announced Atherton's plan to fly to Cairo and Jerusalem beginning the end of this week, disassociated the journey from recent statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and the Israeli cabinet on the negotiating meaning of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, Reston said the Atherton trip had been set in motion by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance last week, before the Israeli announcements.
Vance was scheduled to confer last night at the Cairo airport with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamal during a refueling stop on the Rhodesia-to-London leg of the secretary of state's current trip. Like the Atherton journey, the Vance stopover was described here as another U.S. effort to touch base with the Middle East parties in order to keep the peace negotiations alive.
Resolution 242, the subject of the latest statements from Israel, has been the most serious point of conflict in recent weeks between Washington and Jerusalem and is believed to be the most important stumbling block to resumption of the negotiations with Egypt. Adopted by the United Nations in the aftermath of the 1967 war, the resolution commits Israel to withdraw to an unspecified extent from occupied Arab "territories" in return for the right to live in peace with its neighbours.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government, reversing the interpretation of previous Israeli administrations, has contended that Resolution 242 does not obligate the Jewish state to withdraw its troops to any extent from the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
President Carter publicly called this position "a verp serious blow to the prospects of peace." Privately he and other high officials expressed the view that little can be done to move toward a negotiated peace so long as this Begin view remains unchanged.
Dayan's statements last Firday and an Israeli cabinet announcement Sunday were seen here as a semantic shift that tended to blur the Israeli position. "What's clear is that nothing's clear," said an American official, speaking of the "ambivalence" of Dayan's remarks. Another official said the substance of Dayan's comments did not seem to go beyond the position he expressed even before the unsuccessful Carter-Begin talks here last month.
The U.S. officials noted that in Dayan's interview on Israeli television last Friday, he said in one place that Resolution 242 applies to negotiations with Jordan, but at another place he said the resolution should not be used as the framework for negotiations over Judea and Samaria (the biblical name for the West Bank.) Nowhere in the interview or the cabinet statement was it said that Israel will agree, in principle, to withdraw from the West Bank in return for peace.
Officials here also noted that there are differing interpretations within Israel of Dayan's comments. Atherton is expected to discuss the question in detail when he reaches Jerusalem early next week.
Washington Post correspondent Thomas W. Lippman reported from Cario that Egupt had been expecting the return of Atherton to the area in fulfillment of a Washington commitment "not to let the peace negotiations fade into history." He reported that Egypt expects a stronger U.S. role in resolving the diplomatic conflicts which underlie the present Egyptian-Israeli impasse.
There was no indication here, however, that Atherton will go to the Middle East with major new U.S. proposals or a new U.S. role in the negotiations.
The next big developments, it appeared, might well take place in Washington. Debate will begin in Congress soon over the Carter administration's plan to sell jet warplanes to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Prime Minister Begin, scheduled to be in the United States in two weeks to celebrate Israel's 30th birthday, is expected by many to visit Washington for further talks with Carter.