U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Alfred Atherton and Israeli government officials met today in an attempt to rekindle the dormant Middle East peace negotiations, but from both sides the expectations of a breakthrough were so muted that the negotiations appeared almost perfunctory.
After two meetings with sub-Cabinet officials, Atherton tonight requested a meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and met with Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan at the prime minister's home.
The unscheduled session appeared designed to apply pressure on the legal experts with whom the U.S. envoy had been talking.
"It looks like he realized after two meetings he wasn't getting very far, and it was time to go to higher authorities," said an Israeli government source.
After the 1 1/2-hour meeting, Atherton told reporters he reviewed with Begin "the purpose of the subject" of the earlier meetings, as well as conducting a general review of the Middle East situation. He said he gave Begin no formal message from President Carter.
Atherton, who was accompanied by State Department adviser Herbert Hansell, said the meeting was "perfectly natural" and not prompted by any developments or lack of progress in the talks.
Emerging from one of a series of meetings earlier in the day, Atherton said laconically, "Clearly, these are going to be continuing and on-going discussions."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry, by distancing itself from the Atherton mission, appeared to cast doubt on what could be accomplished between now and the weekend, when Atherton is expected to leave.
When asked why the Foreign Ministry was putting such a low profile on the meeting, a ministry official said, "The lower we keep our expectations, the smaller will be the disappointment later."
Israel's participation in the Atherton talks is being directed by Begin's office instead of the Foreign Ministry.
Israeli sources said that if Atherton did not bring substantial changes in the U.S. interpretation of two disputed articles of the compromise Egyptian-Israeli draft treaty, there will be little chance of a breakthrough without another meeting at the ministerial level.
The disputed articles deal with Egypt's demand for a mandatory review of the Sinai Peninsula security arrangements five years after the signing of the treaty, and Egypt's attempt to soften a treaty provision assuring that the pact would supercede mutual defense agreements between Egypt and other Arab states.
U.S. and Israeli officials both stressed that the subject of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River was not on the agenda of today's meetings.
On Sunday, Israeli officials confirmed that the government decided several weeks ago to establish three new paramilitary settlements in the Jordan Valley and the Gaza Strip, and to turn over to civilian settlers an outpost at the northern end of the Dead Sea.
The State Department yesterday said the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had been asked to clarify "conflicting reports" about the settlements.
Since the Sept. 18 Camp David summit agreements, Israeli officials have talked of plans for new Jewish settlements, usually following strong right wing criticism that the prime minister is following a course that will inevitably lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
None of them have yet materialized. First this was because of a three-month freeze on new settlements following the Camp David talks. Later, it was more the result of a shortage both of funds to build the outposts and of volunteers to inhabit them than from any reticence on the part of Begin, who repeatedly has emphasized Israel's right to settle in the occupied territories.
While the policy clearly states Israel's intentions, Israel has had to be content with programs to boost the population of existing settlements.