Israel's subtle redefinition of its position on withdrawal in the occupied West Bank, by all appearances, is an attempt to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, in terms of how the government is perceived abroad.
Rather than reflecting a substantive shift in negotiating policy, it is a kind of international window dressing designed to sell a product that clearly is not moving - particularly in the United States. But it did contain a nugget of change, at least in nuance.
The persistent contention that U.N. Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories captured during the 1967 war does not apply to the West Bank has caused sever damage to Israel's image in America, where even U.S. Jewish leaders have expressed dismay.
A recent poll by the New York Times and CBS News showed that public support for the Israelis dropped from 54 percent in October to 43 percent now while support for the Arabs remained almost stationary.
Although the new wording on Israel's Resolution 242 policy may solve some problems with the United States, it is not likely to satisfy the demands of the Egyptians that a solid commitment to withdrawal on the West Bank is necessary to get negotiations moving.
On Sunday, the Cabinet seemingly softened its stand by confirming that "Security Council Resolution 242 will serve as a basis for negotiations between Israel and all the neighboring states - Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon." The specific mention Jordan as a negotiating partner was the softener, carrying with it the implication that Israel would discuss the West Bank with Jordan.
"I don't have to spell it out," said Zalman Shoval. Israel's new chairman of the Advisory Committee on Information to the Foreign Ministry, in a press briefing. "We are not discussing Amman with Jordan."
Israel's position under Begin all along has been that Resolution 242 does not apply to all territories occupied in 1967, and specifically does not encompass teritorial compromises on the West Bank.
But what is Israel actually willing to discuss with Jordan? Everything is negotiable, the Israelis have long claimed, but the new wording does not commit Israel to the principle to which Washington and Cairo would like Israel to commit itself: namely that Resolution 242 means that Israel would physically withdraw at least partially from the West Bank. Nor has Israel committed itself to the principle that Resolution 242 requires withdrawal from "all fronts."
Rather, Israel believes its own limited "self rule" proposal and its theory of "functional withdrawal" rather than actual territorial concession, meet the requirements of the U.N. resolution. The Begin peace plan calls for an end to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a large measure of local autonomy for the inhabitants, but security would remain in the hands of the Israelis.
Thus it is Israel's stated intention to negotiate with Jordan the possible forms of this functional partition, rather than an actual partition. "We want them (the West Bank Arabs) to have Jordanian citizenship," Shoval said, and perhaps to vote in Jordanian elections.
It would not be fair to say that Sunday's Cabinet announcement was simply a matter of semantics without any substance. The Cabinet reconfirmed what Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan has said many times: that if the Jordanians want to suggest an actual territorial division of the West Bank, Israel will not dismiss it out of hand. The matter is at least negotiable, but the West Bank is not necessarily returnable.
Sometimes, however, semantics can influence policy by leaving doors and options open for the future.
The change in wording was the work of Dayan, who has consistantly and quitely tried to persuade his prime minister to adopt more positive wording and out of the diplomatic corners into which Begin is prone to paint himself.
During the recent Begin mission to Washington, it was Dayan who consistantly tried to devise new formula and new approaches to bridge the gap between the Americans and the Israelis with little success. But Dayan has continued to search for phrasing that could get negotiations moving again.
There is so much ambiguity surrounding the new Israeli formulation that Israeli officials themselves do not agree on exactly what it means. One high official said Saturday that it "clearly indicates that we do not exclude the West Bank from territories over which we will negotiate withdrawal in a peace treaty." Dayan said on Saturday that the Israeli plan was "not sacred," and that Israel would consider Arab counter proposals.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Begin maintained that although everything was negotiable in the sense that Israel welcomed any Arab proposals, he could not foresee any conceivable set of circumstances in which he would be willing to make any territorial compromises on the West Bank.