The largest remaining obstacle to a binding Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement has been cleared away by Israel's decision yesterday to accept a measure of formal linkage between the treaty and future negotiations on Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The move also shifts the focus of the complex diplomatic process initiated by the Camp David summit to a deeper, second level of bargaining that turns in large part on the American role, which will grow in the West Bank and Gaza negotiations.
Israeli concern over the direction and force the Carter administration will choose in pushing the Palestinian issue has in fact been a major underlying factor in the tangled five-week Blari House talks, which appeared at several points to be deadlocked over a seemingly artificial and obtuse dispute on "linkage." The cabinet vote suggests that the Israelis have decided to test the administration's intentions directly in West Bank and Gaza negotiations.
Egyptian, Iraeli and American officials predict that they still face some of the hardest and most tense bargaining as they drive to resolve the final differences separating Egypt and Israel on the treaty. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's penchant for startling surprises also makes these officials reluctant to predict the Egyptian reaction to the israeli decision.
But the conference sources from more than one of the delegations report a convergence of views on several key disputed points that represented serous threats to the treaty talks. Items:
The final treaty will not include an annex covering the return of Sinai petroleum fields to Egypt and Israel's demand for guaranteed access to Sinai oil. Israel will push, however, to have talks on petroleum continued after the treaty is signed.
The three delegations will open the next round of West Bank and Gaza talks, probably within a month of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, without local Palestinians or Jordan being represented. Remarks made during the negotiations over the past two weeks indicate that both Egypt and United States have reassessed their original views and now think that leaving the Palestinians and Jordan out of the first stage is a good idea.
Egypt and the United States want to outline immediately at the start of the talks a concrete agenda, emphasizing the powers and responsibilities of the local Palestinian councils to be elected under the second Camp David framework agreement.
Egyptian and U.S. negotiators now appear to feel that an agenda spelling out wide powers for the Palestinian councils at the outset would be more effective in combatting Abrab skepticism and opposition to the Camp David agreements than would roping in other Arab participants right away.
Israel reportedly wants to restrict the opening round of talks on the West Bank and Gaza to working out ways in which the councils will be elected, and deal with powers and responsibilities much later in the process.
The deep conflict between these positions surfaced in Blair House two weeks ago when the Egyptians initiated a conversation on the shape of the West Bank and Gaza talks. A measurable hardening of positions and increase in mutual distrust followed, capped by Sadat's sudden shift of focus late last week to commitments for nine-month target dates for the council elections.
In adopting the draft treaty that it had initially rejected a month ago because the preamble contains a reference to the Camp David commitment to find an overalll solution to the Palestinian problem, the Israeli cabinet simply finessed Sadat's latest proposals, and the the compromise that Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance presented to the two countries on Nov. 11.
The U.S. compromise asked the Israelis to agree on negotiations for elections that should occur before the end of 1979. Prime Minister Menachem Begin's statement after the cabinet vote offered immediate negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza. It contained no promise on a timetable, but it does give Sadat and President Carter new room in presenting the treaty and West Bank Gaza talks as being formally linked.
Israel underscored the point that the next move is up to Cairo by conveying the cabinet vote to Egypt as a formal negotiating proposal. Ambassador Simcha Dinitz presented the proposal to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington yesterday and also conveyed it to the State Department.
The head of the Egyptian negotiating team, Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, is due to return home today for consultations. Informed sources said Ali's return, which effectively suspends negotiations for several days, had been scheduled prior to the Israeli cabinet decision.
The Israeli decision was formally welcomed by the Carter administration, but a statement read by State Department spokesman George Sherman emphasized that new negotiations would be needed to resolve the timetable issue.
Pressed by reporters, Sherman said that the administration stood behind its compromise proposal on the time-table issue but is not prescribing the exact form for resolving the dispute. The U.S. compromise was contained in a draft side letter that the two countries were to sign to accompany the treaty, but there were suggestions here that the dispute might be resolved by Israel's giving Carter a separate understanding on the timetable issue that he would then formally convey to Sadat in a U.S. commitment to Egypt.