The Israeli Cabinet, in a political victory for Prime Minister Menachem Begin, adopted a policy on the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday that apparently fell short of U.S. hopes for a firm commitment to a permanent settlement.
Five of the 19 Cabinet members voted against Begin's proposal, setting the stage for what could be a difficult session of parliament today as Begin presents his plan for discussion.
In its response to U.S. queries about its policy, delayed for almost a month because of differences within the Cabinet, Israel sidestepped any direct mention of the status of the occupied territories after a proposed five-year experiment in limited self-government for Palestinian Arabs.
The United States was said to be anxious for a forthright reply because it believes negotiations between Israel and Egypt hinge on it and because of a fear that if the answers were not explicit, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat could abandon his peace initiative and return to pan-Arabism in his dealings with Israel.
A U.S. spokesman said Washington would consult "with each side about how to proceed" on the basis of current Israeli and Egyptian positions. The spokesman declined to characterize "the Israeli response or the Egyptian views."
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, who supported Begin proposal, acknowledged on Israeli television last night that "the Israeli position is not identical to that of the United States but he said that the United Sates had not expected it to be.
Dayan said that "the main question now" is whether Sadat "is ready to enter into peace negotiations" with Israel again.
The Cabinet said that after five years of partial autonomy in the occupied territories, "the nature of the future relations between the parties will be considered and agreed upon" by Israel and the elected representatives of the West Bank and Gaza.
After a month of informal discussions and three debates, 14 of the 19 Cabinet ministers voted for the compromise proposal, handing Begin a significant political victory amid an atmosphere of government crisis that some Israeli leaders said was unparalled since the founding of the Jewish state.
The only Cabinet minister who voted directly against the communique was Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who had advocated a more flexible attitude that would have left open for discussions with Egypt such vital questions as sovereignty of the occupied territories.
Four Cabinet members of the centrist Democratic Movement for Change voted for a draft response of their own, which closely paralled Weizman's position.
The United States reportedly had signaled its unwillingness to accept obscure language in Israel's answers to two questions put to Foreign Minister Dayan in April.
The State Department questions sought answers to whether a final settlement on the West Bank and Gaza sovereignity issue will be possible after five years of limited self-rule for the Palestinian Arabs, and how the Palestinians will achieve a measure of political self-expression at the end of five years.
In its reply, the Cabinet said: "The government of Israel considers it vital to continue the peacemaking process between Israel and its neighbors.
"The government of Israel agrees that five years after the application of the administrative autonomy in Judea and Samaria" - the Biblical names for the West Bank - and the Gaza district, which will come into force upon the establishment of peace, the nature of the future relations between the parties will be considered and agreed upon at the suggestion of any of the parties.
"For the purpose of reaching an agreement, the parties will conduct negotiations between them and with the participation of representatives of the residents of (the territories) as elected in accordance with the administrative autonomy."
The last paragraph appeared to answer at least partially the question of how the Palestinians would achieve some political self-expression, but conspiciously missing was any reference to either a "permanent status" or a "different status" for the occupied terrotories, concessions that had been sought by some Cabinet ministers.
Opposition leader Shimon Peres, head of the Labor party indicated in a radio interview that his party will fight the Begin proposal when it comes to a debate in the Knesset (Parliament). That debate will begin later this week, with Dayan scheduled to make a major address today before the Knesset.
Meanwhile, other political leaders in and out of Begin's coalition last night attacked the response as a vague play on words designed mainly to preserve the Likud coalition.
Knesset member Abba Eban, former foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations, called the response "unsatisfactory . . . It doesn't satisfy me as an Israeli." Eban said the communique failed to recognize U.N. Resolution 242 calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and said it does not even retain the some of the territories.
Yadin said that if the communique is not amended, he will recommend that Democratic Movement for Change abstain when it comes to a vote in the Cabinet. Although the Cabinet vote alone was needed to send the communique to Washington, the Knesset normally debates and votes on such major foreign policy issues.
Israel's peace movement, which has recently conducted demonstrations protesting Begin's stance on the West Bank and the establishment of new Jewish settlements there, issued a statement last night calling the communique "a death blow to the peace process."