The Egyptian-Israeli peace talks, their progress clouded by reportts of difficulties, were brought to an unexpected halt yesterday by announcement that leaders of Israel's delegation are returning home for consultations on a new U.S. proposal.
Everyone involved took great pains to emphasize that the talks were not being broken off and that Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman are expected back in Washington next week to resume the negotiations.
The White House, in particular, strove to minimize the implications of the situation. It issued a statement about the progress of the talks that didn't mention the Israelis' impending departure until the end and that tried to make their trip to Jerusalem sound routine.
Still, the totally unexpected development gave an ominous edge to Dayan's public warnings in recent days that the driver for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had run into difficulties and that he regarded the ability of the delegations here to overcome them as "very doubtful."
His gloomy words were in pointed contrast to the upbeat tone sounded by President Carter since the talks began eight days ago. The president consistently has expressed satisfaction with the progress of the negotiations and, as recently as Thursday, insisted to reporters, "We don't have any particular problems."
Nevertheless, sources familiar with the talks have said that a particularly thorny issue has been the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their Palestinian inhabitants.
Although these Israeli-occupied areas are outside the scope of the proposed treaty, Egypt wants some kind of commitment to the principle of eventual Israeli withdrawal. Israel, though, argues that the future of these areas should be decided in a separate forum after the current talks are concluded successfully.
Another sticking point is understood to involve Israel's insistence on full diplomatic relations with Egypt after Israel begins withdrawing its forces from the Sinai peninsula. Egypt, concerned about adverse reactions in the Arab world, reportedly wants to move more slowly.
Still other disputes relate to how much U.S. financial aid will be given to israel to help pay for its withdrawal from the Sinai. Israel wants help in relocating settlers and building two air bases in the Negev to replace those in the Sinai.
Although Dayan never publicly identified any of these problems, he has hinted strongly in his public statements this week that the delegations here are unable to resolve them because they are operating under instructions that limit their flexibility and freedom to make concessions.
On Thursday, he told Carter that the situation was not like the Camp David summit last month, where Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was able to deal with each other unfettered by such restraints.
Until yesterday, it was unclear whether Dayan really believed that argument or was using it as a negotiating tactic to press for U.S. and Egyptian concessions. The announcement that he and Weizman will return to Jerusalem today appeared to indicate that his pessimism in the face of Carter's optimism was more than just a bargaining ploy.
Yesterday's chain of events culminating in the Israeli action began with the announcement that the United States on Thursday evening had presented the two delegations a revised draft of a peace treaty for their consideration.
George Sherman, the State Department officer serving as spokesman for the talks, said the new draft covered the main articles of the proposed treaty and included points that had been agreed on along with suggested language for resoling issues still in dispute.
Then, during the afternoon, Carter unexpectedly held unscheduled meetings at the White House with first the Israeli and then the Egyptian delegation leaders.
That led to a rash of rumors that the Israelis were leaving. Finally, early in the evening, the White House put out a carefully worded statement noting the new American treaty proposal and adding: "As stated earlier, the parties will be consulting separately with their governments about the current status of the negotiations."
The statement went on to say that Osama Al Baz, under secretary of the Egyptian foreign ministry, flew to London last night to report to Egyptian Vice President HosmiMubarak, now on a tour of European capitals. Mubarak, the statement said, would relay Baz's report to Sadat.