Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin today rejected with unequivocal finality Egypt's demand that Israel reconsider its position on East Jerusalem in order to revive the suspended negotiations on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Begin, in an interview with The Washington Post said he would "regret it very much" if Egyptian President Anwar Sadat attempted to use the Jerusalem issue as a device with which to withdraw from the negotiations with Israel, after having won the return of most of the Sinai peninsula.
But, Begin asserted firmly, the responsibility lies with Egypt to suggest a date for reopening the autonomy talks, without the condition that Israel reexamine the Jerusalem question.
"It's up to Egypt," Begin said. "If they want to continue, we want to bring them [the talks] to a successful conclusion."
Begin seemed unperturbed at the prospect of missing next Monday's deadline for conclusion of negotiations about an autonomous Palestinian council. He appeared almost serene in his willingness to accept a hiatus in the talks and the continuation of the status quo in the occupied territories. At one point, he said international negotiations sometimes last for many years.
"I suppose we should continue our talks as agreed," Begin said, almost indifferently. "But we cannot give up our capital city, for anything in the world. And I don't think there would be any argument in the world which would convince anyone in this country . . . to redivide Jerusalem for the sake of anything. We cannot do that, and we won't."
The prime minister repeatedly sought to convey a sense of unhurried calm in the face of what has been described by several ranking Egyptian officials as the worst crisis in the last two years of Middle East peace negotiations.
"All of us need some patience," he said. "It is a historic conflict, lasting already for generations, with so many wars, so many attempts to destroy our people. Some nations have conducted negotiations for many years [and] nobody saw anything exceptional in that."
By attempting to force a debate on an issue as sensitive as Jerusalem, Begin in disrupting the orderly, methodical pace that has characterized the negotiations thus far.
Egypt has insisted that the 100,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after being captured in 1967, be considered residents of the West Bank of the Jordan River and be made eligible to vote in the proposed autonomous council elections, Israel has consistently rejected the proposal, saying that East Jerusalem is not occupied territory but an integral part of the Jewish state.
When asked whether he believed Sadat seized upon Jerusalem as a way to end the autonomy talks, Begin replied, "What conclusion should we draw? To change our attitude toward Jerusalem? How can we? Yes, we repeat on any occasion that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, an indivisible city, and so it will be in the future."
The prime minister stressed that Israel" never misled anybody as far as Jerusalem is concerned," and suggested that Egypt's motive in forcing the issue should be examined.
The prime minister stressed that since Sadat suspended the autonomy talks May 15 -- for the second time in a week -- it will be Egypt's responsibility to propose a date for the resumption of the negotiations. This cannot be done unilaterally, however, but only in consultation with Israel and the United States, Begin said.
Begin sharply criticized as "a negative interference" the initiative by several Western European countries to amend U.N. resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupeid territories but does not provide for a Palestinian state. A Common Market conference next month is expected to take up the proposed amendment.
"The so-called European initiative can have very little results," Begin said. "First of all, it brings about the radicalization of the Arab position, because there are Arabs who say 'Look, the Europeans suggest to us a policy of a state and the participation of the PLO. How can we accept less?'"
Moreover, he said the European move would undermine the Camp David accords, upon which the autonomy talks are based.
Begin rejected the notion that the growing violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has placed the principle of coexistence in question.
Referring to an upsurge of attacks on Israeli occupation troops, Begin said, "It happened several years ago, too. Sometimes, from time to time, it occurs. But I think it will pass."
Commenting on the assertion by some Arab leaders that a popular revolution is under way in the West Bank, Begin snapped, "Empty words."
He bristled at a suggestion that the military government in the West Bank had fallen into the British colonial pattern of having to meet increased Arab resistance with harsher levels of discipline, which in turn escalates violence.
"Your comparison to the British is not proper, if I may say so,' he said."In Palestine and other parts of the world, a group of officials ruled the country with orders coming from London. Ours is a domestic, indigenous population. We are in our own land."