Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his cabinet have agreed in private that the only way to salvage the faltering Middle East peace negotiations'is to accept a U.S.-proposed draft treaty that the same ministers turned their backs on earlier this month, reliable sources said yesterday.
At the urging of Begin, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, a decisive majority of the Cabinet has agreed to drop its objections to the treaty preamble containing a vaguely-worded link between the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli pact and implementation of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the sources said.
Moreover, the minister have agreed to shelve their objections to a provision under which Israel will withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula without determining the status of the Gaza Strip in advance. Some ministers, fearing the phrase could imply Israel has waived its claim to Gaza, wanted the clause dropped.
Following its rejection of the peace treaty draft, the Cabinet sent Weizman back to Washington on Nov. 7 for Israel's position, particularly on linkage. That was followed by new Egyptian demands, including one seeking a fixed timetable for autonomy in the occupied territories as well as guarantees of an Egyptian police force and liason office in the Gaza Strip - all of which Israel has rejected.
To get off the merry-go-round of new proposals, the Cabinet now is said to be ready to bring the cycle to a stop by simply turning the calendar back three weeks.
"What the government will decide now is to agree to the draft treaty as it was at the end of October, and exclude everything that has happened since then," said an informed source.
Other Israeli officials said that as many as 14 ministers are prepared to approve the October draft compromise when they meet again today, those said likely to oppose the draft are Minister without Portfolio Chaim Landau, Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai.
The cabinet met on Sunday to take stock of the on and-off negotiations, and, according to Cabinet sources, a majority agreed that the latest round of demands by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat compel a shift back to the original compromise treaty.
The turning point, sources said, was when Begin and Dayan lined up behind Weizman on the issue, saying that the cycle of Egyptian and Israeli counterdemands was leading the peace talks toward deadlock.
Adding weight to the argument were opinions submitted by legal advisers Meir Rossenne and Ahron Barak, which, in effect, said there is no technical reason why the compromise draft should not be acceptable to Israel.
The Cabinet could have wrapped up its debate and approved the draft treaty on Sunday, sources said, except that Begin did not want to present the leaders of his own right-wing Herut Party with a fait accompli when he met with them later that evening.
As it happened, Begin signaled his intentions at the Herut meeting by announcing, ". . . The Israeli goverment will state its readiness - if its accepts the foreign minister's and my own proposal - to sign the peace treaty as it has been put before the Cabinet - as the Israeli delegation brought it from Blair House."
The prime minister said he was "certain" that the Cabinet would not accept the most recent Egyptian demands for a fixed timetable for West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy and an increased Egyptian presence in the Gaza Strip. Begin previously had rejected those demands publicly several times.
Israeli's turnabout on the compromise draft - including the once-objectionable preamble - raises the question whether Begin could have avoided three weeks of acrimony had negotiating delays by agreeing to the U.S. compromise in the first place.
The prime minister, it should be noted, was out of the country, visiting the United States and Canada, when Weizman returned to Jerusalem on Nov. 3 with the U.S. draft. There were reports that the pace was almost completed and could be initialed the following week after the Cabinet had been briefed.
Although thoroughly in control of the military aspects of the negotiations, Weizman faced an increasingly hostile Cabinet - itself under pressure from the far right of the Likud coalition - without the presence of Begin to defend the pact's political aspects.
The defense minister was said to have presented a vigorous defense of the draft treaty, urging its acceptance, but the Cabinet admantly rejected the linkage and instructed him to join Dayan again in Washington to seek more changes.
Weizman was reported to have said angrily at one of two Cabinet sessions, "You can always change the negotiating team if you like." Reporters waiting outside the Cabinet room could easily hear shouting among the ministers.
Cabinet sources said it was clear at the meeting that if Begin and Dayan had been present, the compromise draft, while not assured of acceptance, would have at least received a more systematic examination.
IT is unclear what Begin would have done had be been in Jerusalem, although the prime minister had said repeatedly in public that he opposed any formal link between any Egyptian-Israel bilateral treaty and the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since his return to Israel, however, Begin obviously has revived a measure of discipline among his coalition Cabinet members, in addition to securing an overwhelming vote of confidence Sunday night from the 700 member Herut Party Central Commitee. Whether the compromise draft treaty subsequently could have been wrapped up in Washington and initialed by now remains a matter of conjecture. But the Israeli government, by expressing its willingness to accept now what it recently rejected, is clearly trying to signal to Cairo that it wants to end the stake-raising game and revert to a compromise that could be acceptable to both sides.
It is believed here that Sadat's new demands are purely tactical - steming partly from his pique with Israel and partly from the Baghdad conference. If that assumption is incorrect, government officials concede, then Israel's fallback to the U.S. compromise may turn out to have been pointless.
Reuter reported from Paris:
Sadat said yesterday he would not sign a peace treaty with Israel unless it was linked to a specific date for the start of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gasa Strip.
He said he wanted self-rule to begin with completion of the first stage of Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. This should be not more than six to nine months after the signing of the treaty: Sadat said.
The President made his comments in an interview recorded in Cairo by French television for broadcast in Paris last night. French television released a text of his remarks.
"Egypt wants the peace treaty to be linked to a specific date for the beginning of Palestinian self-rule?" Sadat said. "If the treaty fails to include this linkage it would then be a separate Egyptian-Israeli treaty, which I will never be ready to sign."