srael, Egypt and the United States will resume negotiations on Palestinian autonomy this week under a new, marathon format that confronts major questions directly and leaves details to follow-up groups.
In a reversal of the ill-fated approach adopted after the 1978 Camp David accords, in which small, technical groups chipped away at peripheral issues, the hope now is to reach agreement on a broad declaration of principles and then sweep up the leftover details, sources in the Israeli delegation confirmed today.
After this week's ministerial-level plenary session, which opens Wednesday in Cairo, is concluded, one working committee of senior officials will meet for two and three weeks at a stretch. The purpose, Israeli sources said, is to avoid the desultory debates in technical groups that caused the talks on autonomy for the 1.3 million Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to founder in the last round.
Despite the radically changed format, however, and the faith the Israeli delegation is placing in it, the gulf between Jerusalem and Cairo on the key issues remains vast.
The negotiations appeared headed nowhere a year ago when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke them off, ostensibly in protest against a bill adopted by Israel's parliament reaffirming Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 war.
In the resumed sessions, "we're going to try to concentrate on the key issues and reach an agreement as quickly as possible. We're very keen on getting an agreement, and we don't want to get bogged down," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir said in a telephone interview.
In addition to Ben-Meir, the Israeli negotiating team will consist of Interior Minister Yosef Burg, the chairman, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Justice Minister Moshe Nissim and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
The U.S. team will be headed by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Alfred K. Atherton, while the Egyptian delegation is expected to be led by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Kamal Hassan Ali and Foreign Minister Butros Ghali.
Sources close to the Israeli team said the plan is to conduct the talks in three stages: first, the drafting of a statement of common intent, including a formal agenda and schedule and some general references to goals.
Then, one senior-level working group would meet for 14 days in November, 20 days in December and another 20 in January. Out of these meetings, it is hoped, would emerge a broad declaration of principles on the key issues of autonomy.
The third stage, as the Israelis see it, will be to translate the agreed-upon principles into a formal accord that could be presented to the Palestinians of the occupied territories, as well as to Jordan's King Hussein, as called for in the Camp David accords. So far, neither Hussein nor any acknowledged West Bank or Gaza leader has shown interest in the principle of autonomy without total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied areas.
In contrast to the initial round of autonomy talks, the U.S. delegation is expected to play a low-key role.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's vision of full autonomy would give a small Palestinian governing council executive powers only, not the legislative or judicial powers demanded by Egypt. The local council would be limited to about a dozen members, corresponding to civil departments needed to operate public services, such as schools, roads, health facilities and sanitation.
Israel insists that its civilian settlements in the West Bank and Gaza be governed by Israeli law and administration, while Egypt maintains that autonomy applies to land as well as people, and that there cannot be pockets of Israeli sovereignty in an autonomous region. Also in dispute is the question of who controls the water resources in the territories, and whether the 100,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem can vote in the election of West Bank autonomous council members.
The last point touches on the most intractable issue. Egypt considers East Jerusalem occupied territory, subject to negotiation, while Israel considers it nonnegotiable.