Egypt's chief negotiator at the Washington peace talks, attempting to end confusion about this country's demands for peace with Israel, said yesterday that elections for autonmous Palestinian governments should be held in the Gaza Strip within six months of the signing of the treaty and in the West Bank of the Jordan within a year.
As outlined by Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali in a statement to Cairo newspapers, the Egyptian position is only marginally different from a compromise formula offered by the United States on the crucial issue of "linkage" between an Egypt-Israel treaty and the future of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
But it is fundamentally different from the position of the Israelis, who do not want the treaty to be contingent on any timetable for carrying out the provisions of the Camp David agreements relating to Palestinian autonomy.
Kamal Hassan Ali denied that Egypt had "assumed a hard line" on the linkage question because of the condemnation of the Camp David accords by an Arab summit conference in Baghdad.
"Ever since the Egyptian delegation began its negotiations," his statement said, "it had underscored, on clear instructions of President (Anwar) Sadat, the importance of linking an Egypt-Israel peace treaty and progress on the west Bank and Gaza Strip."
Members of the Egyptian delegation did say before going to Washington that they would stress this point, which is vital to Egypt's attempt to show that it is negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians, not seeking a separate peace. But they talked then of some general formula for trying the treaty to evolution of Palestinain autonomy, not a specific timetable.
The Camp David agreements provide for negotiations leading to the election of a "self governing authority" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it does not say when the elections should be held. According to those agreements, the five-year transition period leading to Palestinian autonomy does not begin until after the elections have been held, but Egypt - fearing that it will never happen if the Israelis are not pinned down in writing - wants the process accelerated according to a fixed timetable.
"Egypt had proposed from the beginning," he said, "that procedures for practical implementation of the peace accords begin with setting up an autonomous administration in Gaza, Egypt being legally and politically responsible for the strip, and that what is agreed on in respect of the Gaza Strip apply in full to the West Bank."
Sadat was reliably reported to have told members of his political party this week that an Egypt-Israel treaty would have to be tied "at least" to the return of the Gaza Strip to Egyptian control. Those remarks were interpreted here as meaning that in the absence of any commitment by Jordan to negotiate on behalf of the West Bankers, Egypt would go ahead on behalf of the Gaza Palestinians and leave the West Bank for later.
The truth is, Kamal Hassan Ali's statement said, that "Egypt had previously invited King Hussein of Jordan to assume his responsibilities in connections with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and declared that Egypt would undertake her responsibility towards the Gaza Strip and was prepared also to assume responsibility for the West Bank if Jordan lagged behind on her responsibilities."
It was wrong, he said, to believe that it was Egypt that rejected the American plan, which was to set up autonomous rule in both territories a year after the treaty. Though Egypt wants the period shortened to six months in Gaza, he said, "The Israelis rejected the American proposal at the meeting Prime Minister Menachem Begin held with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in New York."
Earlier this week, the Israeli Cabinet put off a debate on the American compromise in anticipation of new proposals from the Egyptian side.
But the defense minister said that Egypt had not made any new proposals since the American formula was offered.
His statement appeared to have been issued in response to widespread - if conflicting - reports that the Egyptian position was changing in some fundamental way at this late stage of the negotiations.
The president has said that work on the treaty is 90 percent completed, but has not publicly discussed the linkage issue since Vice President Hosny Mobarak went to Washington to join the negotiations.