The Israeli Cabinet, in a reversal of its position of three weeks ago, declared yesterday that it is ready to sign a peace agreement that links a treaty with Egypt to self-determination for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But a new hitch promptly developed in the peace negotiation when Egypt, which has insisted on a firm timetable for Palestinian self-rule, recalled its delegation from the Washington talks for consultations in Cairo.
There was no immediate indication what effect the Egyptian move would have on the talks but Washington Post correspondent Thomas W. Lippman reported from Cairo that top Egyptian officials have said that a suspension of the negotiations would not mean an end to efforts to sign a peace treaty next month.
By a decisive 15-to-2 margin, the Israeli Cabinet voted to accept a U.S.-proposed compromise, draft treaty that the ministers had sent back to Washington early this month as unacceptable. That rebuff triggered a spate of new Egyptian demands that clouded the ponderous peace process.
But in their acceptance of the draft treaty, the cabinet again overwhelmingly rejected Egypt's demand that the treaty encompass a timetable on the establishment of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli Cabinet's reversal on the draft treaty itself, nonetheless, is expected to remove a major obstacle to an agreement, since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has repeatedly said he would never sign a treaty that did not link the Egyptian-Israeli pact with the issue of self-governance for Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Eliahu Ben-Ellisar, director-general of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's office, said last night, "It is now only a question of a text that has been accepted by Israel and Egypt."
Asked whether a treaty could be signed by Dec. 17, just within the three months goal set at the Camp David summit conference, Ben-Ellisar replied, "I think everything could be signed in a very short time, even within a few hours or a few days," providing Egypt stays within the summit agreements.
The Cabinet, as expected, rejected recent proposals by Sadat for a fixed timetable for implementation of West Bank-Gaza autonomy, saying that they are inconsistent with the Camp David agreements and are not acceptable to Israel."
In a short, carefully worded communique read to reporters by Begin at the end of a five-hour debate, the Cabinet pledged to start negotiating Palestinian autonomy once a peace treaty with Egypt has been signed and ratified by Israel's Parliament.
"After the signing and ratification of the treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel, Israel is prepared to start negotiating toward reaching an agreement on administrative autonomy in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) provisions of the framework for peace agreed upon at Camp David," Begin announced.
Another proviso added by the Cabinet was that Israel is ready to sign the compromise draft as submitted, providing that "Egypt is ready to act likewise." The word "likefise" was underlined in the communique, as if to emphasize that the Israeli negotiators are unwilling to consider any amendments to the document.
While it did not explicity say so, the government clearly made its offer on the assumption that Sadat's demands for an autonomy timetable and for the right to put Egyptian police into the Gaza Strip were tactical bargaining ploys that stemmed from the Egyptian president's pique at Israel's previous rejection of the compromise draft.
It is just as likely, however, that the basis for the demands is, in part, increased pressure on Sadat by Arab League nations following the Baghdad summit conference, and that Egypt will have to make a substantive concession by withdrawing its timetable demands or the peace talks could stall again.
The linkage provision in the compromise draft is contained in a preamble to nine clauses and four annexes, and it declares in somewhat vaguely worded language that the agreement between Israel and Egypt will serve as a "basis for agreement" also between Israel and any neighboring party that is willing to conduct negotiations with Israel.
Until last week, Begin had been adamant in his refusal to accept the linkage because he viewed it as a possible escape clause for Egypt, or at least a device that Sadat could use to postpone the normalization of relations between the two countries if he felt Israel was not making sufficient progress in negotiating Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel's objections to the timetable proposal are based on the same concern, with some negotiators privately expressing the belief that autonomy negotiations will, at best, be long and difficult. During the process, they beleive, Egypt may become impatient and decide to halt the process of establishing diplomatic ties, open borders and Israeli shipping on the Suez Canal.
When the Cabinet turned down the U.S. compromise draft and instructed Weizman to return to Washington to renegotiate, however, Begin was on a 12-day visit to the United States and Canada and did not take part in the decision, at least directly.
Since then, Begin has clearly revived a measure of control over his most hardline ministers. He also won an overwhelming vote of confidence by the 700-member central committee of his own rightist Herut Party Sunday night, strengthening his political base enough to make new peace initiatives.
The only Cabinet members to vote against the compromiee draft yesterday were Chaim Landau, a minister without portfolio, and Education Minister Zevulun Hammer.
Landau is a long-time Herut ally of Begin, Having fought along side him in the 1940s in the Irgun, the underground terrorist organization that Begin headed. Hammer is a member of the National Religious Party who often is allied with Begin on conservative causes.
While the Cabinet's communique made no mention of it, the ministers last night were said to have accompanied their treaty approval with instructions to Dayan, who heads the negotiating team, not to make any commitments on the exact dates and stages of Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula without the approval of the full Cabinet.
The Cabinet reportedly also privately reasserted its firm stand against any timetable on implementation of Palestinian autonomy.
It was also understood that the Cabinet did not yield on its insistence that a "priorities clause" be retained in the pact, despite Sadat's stated intentions to have it removed.