Even before the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is signed or its terms fully revealed, Egypt is staking out a hard-line position on the interpretation of its provisions dealing with Palestinian autonomy and the future of the occupied territories.
The Egyptians are predicting that the negotiations to be held on this thorny question over the next year will be even more difficult than the talks that led to the treaty itself. That is likely to become a self-fulfilling propohecy because the vision of the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that Egypt is laying out seems irreconcilable with what Israel is prepared to accept.
In the current context of the Middle East, with Arab leaders denouncing President Anwar Sadat for what they see as a separate peace that abandons the Palestinian cause, it is easy to understand why the Egyptians take the broadest possible view of what they claim to have achieved.
Deputy Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali told reporters that Egypt's objective in the forthcoming negotiations is "to obtain I would say not a kind of consecration from the rejectionists but at least a neutral attitude until we can show some positive results."
In messages to the other Arabs, the Egyptians are saying, in effect, do not judge us too hastily, wait till you see what we actually obtain and have obtained for the Palestinians. But it is difficult to envision any outcome that would satisfy Sadat's Arab critics and still fit in with Israel's view of the future of the territories.
The Egyptians are claiming that they have already achieved, in the peace treaty and its associated documents, the framework for complete transfer of power in the occupied territories from Israelis to Arabs -- a transfer that goes far beyond the limited autonomy envisioned by Israel.
In the Egyptian view, the terms of the treaty already negotiated mean that the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will have local governing powers amounting to sovereignty and, according to Boutros Ghali, their own state. Newspaper reports say Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil told members of the ruling party that the treaty says that Jewish settlements are to be eliminated from the West Bank as they are from Sinai, that East Jerusalem is to be considered part of the occupied lands from which Israel is to withdraw and that "the Palestinian government to be formed on the West Bank and Gaza is the only government that will have decision-marking power."
There is an enormous gulf between this assessment of what the treaty will lead to and that of the Israelis. According to reports from Jerusalem, the Israelis are prepared for nothing more than a limited local autonomy in which Israel maintains some settlements and mililtary outposts and keeps control of public lands and water resources.
The Israelis have said they will not tolerate the creation of an independent Palestinian state and they are not prepared to negotiate over the status of Jerusalem, which they regard as one city, the capital of their country.
Privately, the Egyptians recognize that some of the objectives they say are included in the peace formula, such as the establishment of full Arab sovereignty on the West Bank, are probably unattainable.
In fact, Sadat recongnized months ago that the opposition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the West Bank Arabs might preclude any substantive negotiations on the West Bank at all, which is what led him to propose that an autonomy council be set up first in the Gaza Strip, which is more tractable.
Going into the negotiations, however, the Egyptians are seeking everything -- a single, self-governing Palestinian authority running both the West Bank and Gaza and controlling all of both territories.
According to a report in today's editions of the newspaper A1 Ahram, Israel has already agreed that "the borders of the West Bank and Gaza are the borders which existed in 1967, which ends any other claims concerning the borders of of the West Bank and Gaza or thie existence of nonexistence." It is difficult to believe that the Israelis interpret the treaty in the same way, since as A1 Ahram points out, "Eastern Jerusalem falls within the borders of the West Bank," and Boutros Ghali has been saying that Egypt will hold to that view in the forthcoming talks.
The prospects for the negotiations are cluded not only by what are clearly divergent views of what they are all about but also by the fact that it is unclear who will participate in them.
According to the Egyptians, the negotiations will be at the "ministerial level," and will be conducted by Egypt, Israel and the United States. American participation, they say, is the fulfillment of President Carter's pledge to Sadat to keep up the pressure on the Palestinian question, which induced Sadat to drop his insistence on a fixed timetable for elections. But American participation was not envisioned in the Camp David agreements, and it is not certain that Israel will accept it.
According to the Camp David agreements, the negotiations on the Palestinian question were to be conducted by Egypt, Israel, Jordan and "representatives of the Palestinian people." The Jordanians are unlikely to take part because they oppose the Camp David formula. Any Palestinians who might venture forth are certain to be repudiated by the PLO, although Egypt claims to be in regular secret contact with the PLO.
That being the case, according to Boutros Ghali, a month after the negotiations begin Egypt and Israel may decide together that it is fruitless to attempt to set up an autonomous government on the West Bank, at least now, and proceed separately on Gaza.
If that happens, Sadat will be in the fallback position he has maneuvered to build from the beginning of his peace initiative 16 months ago -- he will he able to say, truthfully, that he obliged Israel to recognize the existence of the Palestinians and created a format for the Palestinians to negotiate something for themselves, and if they refuse to take it up, he cannot force them to do so. Then he will have what many Arabs believe he wanted from the beginning -- peace with Israel, the Sinai, and least a claim to have done his best for the Palestinians to whom in his view Egypt has been hostage too long.