The United States, Israel and Egypt tentatively resolved an acrimonious squabble over a Sinai peninsula truce force yesterday by agreeing that Israeli and Egyptian military patrols should be augmented by U.S. civilian technicians and increased U.S. aerial surveillance.
After two days of intense negotiations, a smiling Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, flanked by Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, announced that the formula for this arrangement is being submitted to their three governments for approval.
If the plan does get the expected green light, it should defuse the tensions that have been smoldering between Israel and the United States for weeks over the need for a buffer force while Israel is withdrawing from the Sinai and turning it back to Egyptian control.
Originally, the three parties to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had expected the United Nations Emergency Force in the Sinai to be the buffer. But that plan was scuttled during the summer when the threat of a Soviet veto in the U.N. Security Council caused UNEF's mandate to lapse without renewal.
Israel then insisted that, under the Camp David accords, the United States was obligated to provide an alternate peacekeeping force. But a U.S. proposal to use the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO) was rejected as inadequate by Israel, which said the personnel would be insufficiently armed and under the control of U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. armed and under the control of U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.
The dispute was papered over temporarily when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to have patrols from their armed forces carve up the supervising of different phases of the withdrawal. Israel's insistence on a more permanent arrangement led to the negotiations here this week.
As sketched by the negotiators yesterday, the key to the agreement involves the use of American technicians and overflights to help insure that the withdrawal lines are respected by the other two countries and to guard against Egypt putting heavily armed units into Sinai areas designated as limited-arms regions under the peace treaty.
U.S. technicians and monitoring equipment have been in the Sinai since 1975 when Israel made a partial pre-treaty withdrawal. Although the technicians were scheduled to be withdrawn at the end of the year, Vance said yesterday that the plan now is to keep them there during the three-year Israeli withdrawal.
In apparent anticipation of questions about whether U.S. troops will be involved in the Sinai, Vance stressed that all American personnel will be civilians and will not exceed 200. Also, as was done with the technicians originally were sent to the Sinai in 1975, the executive branch will ask permission from Congress for the arrangement, Vance said.
In addition, he said, the United States will increase the reconaissance flights being made over the Sinai by U.S. Air Force planes based in Cyprus.
Other aspects of supervising the withdrawal such as inspections and establishment of check points along the buffer zones will be handled by the Egyptian and Israeli military. However, the negotiators did not make clear whether Egypt and Israel will form joint, mixed patrols under a single command or will divide these tasks and operate independently.
In response to questions about that, Hassan Ali said, "What matters is that the role itself will be carried out. Who does what and who watches what will be discussed."
The three ministers also said there is still a possibility of UNTSO observers or other U.N. personnel becoming involved. But, they added, the question of a U.N. role is something that requires further study and negotiation.
U.S. officials said privately that part of the problem is simply the mechanics of negotiating with the U.N. bureaucracy and those member countries that contribute personnel to UNTSO. An even bigger obstacle to potential UNTSO participation, though, concerns Israeli mistrust of the United Nations and fear that U.N. members hostile to the Middle East peace process might use UNTSO as a device to cause trouble in the Sinai.
Israel has made clear that it will not permit any involvement in the Sinai withdrawal by the Soviet Union. Its Communist bloc allies or Third World countries supporting those Arab factions hostile to the Egyptian-Israeli accord.
At a press conference later yesterday, Dayan underscored that stance by saying that while "U.N. observers might be included in one way or another, the job can be done only by countries that have a genuine interest in furthering the peace treaty."
Calling the agreement "the best that could be achieved under the circumstances," Dayan said: "The main point is that we -- the Egyptians and the Israelis -- have agreed to work together to police the buffer zone."
His words indicated that the agreement has laid to rest one of the several issues -- the others include Israeli strikes into Lebanon, U.S. overtures to Palestinian forces, and Isreali land acquisition moves in the West Bank and Gaza strip -- that have caused severe strains between the United States and Israel during the summer.
These strains were given a symbolic personal dimension last Saturday night when Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Harold Saunders, assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs, got into a tense public argument at an Israeli embassy reception.
During the hour-long exchange, Saunders admonished Israel for not informing the United States of its plans for patrolling the Sinai in cooperation with Egypt, and he sharply criticized Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Weizman retorted that U.S. "weakness" had caused the loss of Ethiopia, Angola and Iran.
Yesterday, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate the new upbeat feeling engendered by the Sinai agreement, Saunders and Weizman appeared before reporters and TV cameras in the State Department lobby to publicly patch up their quarrel with broad grins and compliments.
"I was very sorry it blew up like that," Weizman said, "but this is a democracy. We don't have to defect because of that, thank God."
He told Saunders, "I hope to see you in Israel very soon." To which Saunders replied, for all to hear:
"I look forward to that very much. Ezer and I have known each other for 15 years. We've discussed many things over the years and always come out of it with smiles -- as we do today."