U.S. special Middle East envoy Sol Linowitz said today that Israel was considering some small gestures, including the release of some Palestinian prisoners and the indefinite postponement of the transfer of the prime minister's office to East Jerusalem, to bring Egypt back to the negotiating table.
Linowitz, who held two lengthy meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and flies to Cairo Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, said Israel also is considering the strengthening of Moslem control over sacred mosques here.
Winding up a three-day effort here to revive the suspended Palestinian autonomy talks, the U.S. envoy said such gestures by Israel on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem could provide Sadat with a face-saving justification for reopening the autonomy negotiations.
Sadat called a halt to the talks after Israel's parliament adopted a law July 30 perpetuating Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"These type of gestures would be a further testament of Israel's desire to show a spirit of maximum cooperation or commitment to the process of peace," Linowitz said in an interview. "I think Israel is seriously considering such steps."
But the special envoy, who was last in the Middle East in May, noted that Begin has repeatedly asserted that he is unwilling to "pay a price" to Egypt for reopening the talks, because Sadat unilaterally suspended them.
[Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassas Ali told the authoritative Cairo newspaper Al Ahram today that Linowitz would succeed in getting the talks started again. United Press International reported. "Unless the Israeli government announces that the issues of Jerusalem and the (Israeli) settlements (on the West Bank) are negotiable . . . Cairo will not respond to the call of resuming the Palestinian autonomy negotiations," Ali said.]
What form Israel's gesture on the Moslem holy places might take was unclear tonight, although Linowitz indicated that he would like to take Sadat a package that the Egyptian president could interpret as a concession by Israel.
Begin's ofice announced tonight that two documents had been jointly drafted by Linowitz and the Israeli negotiators from which, a spokesman said, "it is hoped might pave the way to a renewal of the autonomy negotiations."
But the prime minister's office said there were no new concessions in the document because Israel's policy is "not a matter of gesticulation. The Egyptians broke off the talks and it is up to them to renew them."
Begin's office said that only the Israeli Cabinet can decide about the move of the prime minister's office to East Jerusalem.
Israeli law -- indeed, the very Jerusalem law that irritated Sadat to the point of suspending the autonomy talks -- already includes specific provisions guaranteeing free access by Christians, Moslems and Jews to the holy shrines in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.
The Mosque of Omar, also known as the Dome of the Rock, where Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his horse, is one of the holy shrines. The Al Aqsa Mosque, adjacent to it, is the third holiest shrine in the Moslem world, after Mecca and Medina.
The two shrines are already under nominal Arab supervision. Presumably, Begin would have to upgrade that control enough to provide Sadat with what one diplomat called a "fig leaf" gesture to justify his reopening the negotiations.
However, some of Begin's advisers were known to be adamantly opposed to giving the Egyptian president any pretense for suggesting that Israel was tacitly acknowledging an error in its adoption of the Jerusalem law.
Linowitz, who met also with the full Israeli autonomy negotiating committee and opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, stressed that "time is not on the side of peace."
"We ought to be sitting down at the negotiating table. The issue of Jerusalem came in off the horizon and brought not only a thundercloud but a thunderclap. It deflected us from what we should be doing," Linowitz said.
"We need to get back to the spirit of cooperation. These [gestures] are indicative of that spirit. They would lead us to say to Egypt, we know of your concern, but put that in the context of the need to resume the peace process," Linowitz said.
Once the negotiations resume, he added, "I think we could make real progress toward an autonomy arrangement that ought to be attractive to the Palestinians."
Linowitz said he would also tell Sadat that the European peace initiatives do not offer an alternative to the Camp David accords, because the Palestinians "should not be distracted by the suggestion that a better answer is in the offing, when in fact a better answer is not there."
Israeli sources said that Begin decided, even before Linowitz's arrival, to postpone the planned relocation of his office and staff of 250 to East Jerusalem as a symbolic demonstration of the indivisibility of the city.
Meanwhile, Begin said that Arab families living in houses near the new office will not be evicted, despite the serving of evacuation notices by officials of the lands authority. Aides to the prime minister said the orders were issued without Begin's knowledge.
Aisha Yassin Abu Taa, who lives in a house owned by her son, Ibrahim, of Silver Spring, Md., had said she and her family would not move even if bulldozers came to demolish the house.
[In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher met Tuesday with Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron to express U.S. concern over recent Israeli military incursions into southern Lebanon. State Department sources said the U.S. protest delivered by Christopher called for Israel to desist from unilateral actions that raise the level of tension and violence along its border with Lebanon.]