When Israel's six-member negotiating team opens talks with Egypt in Beersheba on autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it will be bound to a hard-line position designed to perpetuate Israeli control over all but the most perfunctory government functions.
A self-governing council elected by the 1.1 million Palestinians in the occupied territories would, according to the Israeli negotiators' brief, be permitted to manage their schools hospitals, social services and municipal services-but little else.
Israel will explicitly rule out any legislative function for the autonomy council and will insist on numerous safeguards designed to prevent the West Bank and Gaza inhabitants from gradually turning the territories into a Palestinian state or from suddenly calling a constitutent assembly and declaring independence.
"I assure you, if anything comes out of the negotiations, it will not be a Palestinian state," said an aide to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, adding bluntly: "If that's denying them the right of self-determination, then so be it."
Led by the conservative Interior Minister Yosef Burg, the Israeli delegates will be severely restricted in their freedom to compromise without the consent of Begin's Likud coalition Cabinet, which this week approved a set of guidelines for autonomy.
The document, which has not been made public but whose major points have been backed by members of the Cabinet is entitled: "Proposal of principles for full autonomy for the Arab residents in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district, and for the maintenance of the Jewish settlements in these areas."
Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank.
In addition to the 18-point autonomy plan, the negotiators will be guided by a voluminous report compiled by ministerial committee headed by Begin's chief of staff, Eliahu BenElissar. This describes in more detail the limits of the self-governing council as envisioned by the Israeli government.
For example, the Palestinians would be denied the right to establish radio and television stations, could not issue currency or control balance of trade, could not apply judicial power over Jewish settlers in the occupied territories or over Israeli visitors there, and would not be allowed to put forward as council candidates members of the Palestine Liberation Organization or anyone accused of subversive acts against Israel.
Underlying both documents are two principles that the Cabinet considered so important that, at the risk of souring the negotiations from the start, it treated separately in two declarations attached to the autonomy guidelines.
"Israel will never permit the establishment of a Palestinian state [in the territories] because that would constitute a threat to its survival and security," and, looking ahead, "after the five years of the autonomy plan, Israel will demand its right to apply its sovereignty to the occupied areas.
A third fundamental principle binding Israel's negotiating team was written into the plan to answer a question that has dogged the Cabinet since discussions on autonomy began: What would Israel do if the Palestinian council proclaimed an independent state?
Implicit in that question is fear that the Palestinians - if they ever accepted autonomy - could in several years challenge Israel's right to intervene in their affairs by claiming that the authority of their limited self-rule is the peace treaty itself.
To address those questions, the Cabinet wrote into its guidelines a clause declaring that the source of the proposed Palestinian self-governing council's authority will be the Israeli military government of occupation, which is to be withdrawn from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Tacitly included in that assertion is the unmistakable message that if the self-governing council ever exceeds the limits of its charter - such as proclaiming an independent state or restricting the movements of Jewish settlers - then it could be dissolved by Israel and the military government would be restored automatically.
In the Cabinet's marathon debates on autonomy, Begin is said to have argued that the Camp David agreement implies that the source of the council's authority should be the military government because it states that the military government will be "withdrawn," as opposed to "abolished."
Begin's top advisers have said that if the members of the self-governing council proclaim independence they will immediately be arrested and the military government will be restored.
"We would be right back to square one," said one senior official.
The question is likely to become the first major sticking point in the early stages of the autonomy talks and nobody in the government is predicting that the principle will be accepted intact.
Beyond the broad, fundamental principles laid down by Israel in hopes of retaining control over the West Bank and Gaza are detailed demands that in practice would perpetuate Israeli influence in the occupied areas.
Although the Israeli Army will "redeploy" from densely populated areas to strategic rural positions, it will retain responsibility for security in the West Bank and Gaza. The Camp David "framework for peace" specifies that a "strong local police force" and joint Israeli-Jordanian patrols will ensure security, along with other unspecified "arrangements." Jordan has refused to participate in the plan.
So-called state lands, formerly owned by the Jordanian Crown Council, will remain under Israeli control, and may be used by the army or for Jewish settlement. Land privately owned by Arabs but uncultivated could be requisitioned by Israel for security needs, including settlements.
Israel will retain the right to build new settlements anywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, and settlers will be subject to Israeli law only.
Israel will retain control of water resources in the territories and will plan water usage in "consultation" with the self-governing council.
Israeli citizens will be able to purchase land in the West Bank and Gaza. Arab residents would be able to purchase land in Israel if they become Israeli citizens.
To what extent Israel will compromise on its opening position rests largely with the ability of the more moderate ministers-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan chief among them-to influence the right-wing Cabinet majority.
While right-wing ministers, led by Ariel Sharon and Zevelun Hammer, undoubtedly regard the autonomy plan as Israel's last word, it appears certain that after an initial stalemate over the broad sovereignty principles attached to the plan, a long period of trading compromises on specific autonomy provisions will follow.