The Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy resumed here yesterday amid disagreement about whether Israel had made a potentially significant concession to help overcome differences impeding the talks.
The problem was touched off by press reports that Israel had given its negotiating partners a postion paper offering to give the self-governing authority to be created for Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank ad Gaza Strip a voice in determining the future use of public lands.
U.S. officials were decribed in these reports as regarding the Israeli move as "encouraging." However, the chief Israeli negotiator, Interior Minister Yosef Burg, went out of his way yesterday to deny the development represented a significant shift in Israel's negotiating position.
"I think our positions are fair toward this issue, but there is nothing which can justify the reports that were published today," Burg told reporters.
U.S. sources said Burg's description was essentially correct. These sources added that Burg and his delegation appeared to be particularly disturbed by the reports because of concern they would raise questions in Israel about whether Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government is making unexpected shifts in its bargaining stance.
It is true, the sources said, that the Israelis, in their new document, have put in writing for the first time an acknowledgment that the Palestinian self-governing authority should have a voice in deciding the use of scare land in the occupied territories. But, the sources noted, that view has been implicit in the Israeli position throughout most of the long negotiations.
The question is especially important because of its potential impact on the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The sources said that, in their latest document, the Israelis reaffirmed they do not plan to build more settlements beyond the four that have been publicly announced.
However, the sources said, the question remains unresolved on whether existing Jewish settlements can be "thickened" -- the Israeli term for expanded -- after Palestinian self-rule is introduced on the West Bank.
In conceding the Palestinians should have some say in determining land policy for the West Bank, the Israelis stopped short of saying they would permit that authority to extend to the settlements. U.S. sources said Burg's comments yesterday should be interpreted as an attempt to set the record straight on that point and erase any impression that Israel is conceding any kind of Palestinian control over its West Bank settlements.
Sources familiar with yesterday's negotiations, which opened ceremonially at Blair House and then shifted into more informal sessions at the Madison Hotel, said they were devoted primarily to combing through the latest U.s., Egyptian and Israeli proposals for resolving the many thorny issues impeding agreement on a workable autonomy plan. Today's session, which are expected to end the current round, will be devoted to isolating points of agreement in the three proposals, discussing procedures for future negotiations and preparing groundwork for the summit meeting among Carter, Sadat and Begin planned after the Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election.
The sources said it was unlikely there will be any more to-level negotiating rounds between now and the election, although discussions might be continued on a technical level. Most diplomatic observers do not believe any substantive progress toward an autonomy accord can be made until the summit, but the Carter administration considered it important to have at least one negotiation in the long-deadlocked talks before then as a means of demonstrating that the U.S.-sponsored Camp David peace process is still alive.
In a related development, Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak called on Carter yesterday to deliver a letter from Sadat. In the message, Sadat is understood to have stressed his concern that the Persian Gulf war between Iraq and Iran could increase instability in the Middle East and to have called on Carter for a stronger U.S. role in dealing with the conflict.