Egypt and Israel accepted a U.S. proposal today to break up the complex issues involved in their West Bank autonomy negotiations and to refer them to lower level diplomatic committees for specific recommendations.
The first two working groups established by today's decision will discuss arrangements for holding elections of Palestinian self-governing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, and will try to define the powers and responsibilities these authorities will have.
Agreeing to shelve for now their broad dispute over a future Palestinean state on Israel's border, the Egyptian and Israeli delegations appeared to be seeking to get Robert Strauss off to a good start as President Carter's special Middle East negotiator by adopting Strauss' proposal for the working groups.
Strauss was participating in the five-week-old talks on Palestinian autonomy for the first time. He hailed the new arrangement as "a structure for coming to grips with the practical problems" that have the most "sense of urgency."
Referring to the elections and to the powers and responsibilities of the authorities, Strauss told a press conference held at the end of the day and a half negotiating session that "these two [questions] have to be disposed of before you can move on to other related issues." Characterizing it as "a breakthrough" at one point, Strauss asserted that "we've demonstrated again that this process can work."
Strauss' repeated emphasis on practical steps now aligned him and the U.S. position here more clearly with the Israeli view of this stage of the negotiations than with the Egyptians, who had sought a broad agenda and early commitments on Palestinian political rights. Egypt says the negotiations will eventually lead to Palestinian statehood; Israel says no such state ever will exist.
Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil emphasized in his answers to questions that the two negotiating committees are empowered to take up "other related issues" which in his view include the 17 points that Egypt put forward as the basis for ajoint declaration of principles on Palestinian rights.
"They are still on the agenda." He said "these are still under discussion because these are matters of principle."
Delegates reported that there had been relatively little discord or drama in the negotiating session, held in a banquet hall in an Alexandria hotel. The sharpest disagreement was reportedly about a proposal establishing a working group to discuss security on the West Bank, which Israel easily resisted.
The statement read to reporters said that other working groups could be set up for other topics as negotiations proceeded.
Strauss acknowledged to American reporters after the press conference that the negotiating session had given his little to convince Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Arabia's King Khalid, both of whom he sees Saturday in quick visits, that West Bank Palestinians would feel encouraged to take part in the slow moving negotiations.
"I'm not sure there is anything like that," Strauss said. "But those who oppose this peace process have suffered a loss. Had we failed, the voices of opposition would have been more shrill. We have lowered the decibel level of the voices of negativism."
Strauss' bilateral talks with Egyptian and Israeli leaders and the negotiating sessions here appear to have sketched a rough timetable for the West Bank talks, which are linked under the Camp David peace framework agreements to the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral peace treaty.
The two working groups composed of two members from each delegation will meet in about two weeks to come up with recommendations for the August 5 ministerial-level meeting involving Strauss, Khali and Israeli Interior Minister Josef Burg.
President Anwar Sadat suggested this week that Egypt needs proof of pogress by October, while Strauss has spoken of hoping for significant movement by the end of the year.
Strauss told reporters that Carter called him twice today to discuss domestic policy and opened the first conversation by saying, "It seems to be taking you a lot longer to solve the Middle East than I expected."