Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said today he would like to accelerate the altering negotiations on Palestinian autonomy in an effort to meet the May 26 target date for agreement on electing a self-governing council in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Heading for Washington and a series of talks with President Carter, Begin told reporters at an airport news conference that while he supports a speedup in the negotiations, where to hold the meetings remains unresolved.
Begin made similar comments upon his arrival Monday afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base, where he was met by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The Israeli prime minister said "we shall do our best" to speed up the deadlocked negotiations, but he avoided promising that an agreement would be reached before the target date.
[In his arrival statement, Begin also expressed sympathy about the holding of American hostages in Iran and said America can always count on Israel as an ally at this "difficult" time when Soviet troops were occupying Afghanistan.]
Responding to reports that Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat have agreed in principle to moving the Egyptian and Israeli negotiating teams to Blair House for marathon sesions until May 26, Begin said he had been empowered by Israel's Cabinet to "clarify with President Carter the question of where those talks should take place."
Several Cabinet ministers, including Interior Minister Yosef Burg, head of the Israeli autonomy negotiating committee, have expressed reservations about holding marathon sessions in Washington instead of alternating them between Egypt and Israel. Among other reasons Burg has cited is the problem of keeping ministers away from their posts for several weeks at a time. Accompanying the prime minister are Burg and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Begin is also known to be concerned that intensive, marathon autonomy talks would likely subject Israel to increased U.S. pressure to make new concessions, as the Camp David talks did near their conclusion in 1978.
Asked whether he was concerned about reports that the U.S. position on the autonomy of the 1.2 million Palestinians in the occupied territories has drawn closer to that of Egypt than to Israel's Begin replied, "There is always room for concern. [but] we have received a report from the president of the United States that no conlcusions have yet been reached and that he is awaiting our arrival."
Cabinet Secretary Aryeh Naor gave impetus to those reports when he said some ministers had heard about proposals to which Carter and Sadat had agreed in their Washington talks last week. Nevertheless, he said, "The Camp David agreement must be implemented in the letter and the spirit alike. We take the letter of the Camp David agreement very seriously."
There has been growing concern among some officials here that Carter and the Egyptian president may have coordinated their positions on several key autonomy issues, and that Begin will be confronted with a fait accompli.
If nothing else, speculation by Israel journalists and politicians before the summit created a mood here that Israel's embattled prime minister was going off on a mission not much less formidable than that of David against Goliath.
Backed by a supportive Cabinet resolution, however, Begin has made it clear that he has no intention of discussing topics no explicitly included in the Camp David accords, including a possible freeze on establishing new settlements and voting eligibility for the 100,000 Palestinian Arabs in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Concerning Sadat's proposal that an autonomy scheme be implemented first in the Gaza Strip to serve as a model for the more recalcitrant West Bank, Begin insisted that this will not be made a negotiable issue until an overall agreement has been reached on the substantive definition of autonomy, which is far from being decided.
Begin is also going to Washington mindful of domestic political pressure from the right wing of his ruling Likud coalition that would appear to preclude any sweeping concessions to Carter on the major issues touching of Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza.