Egypt, Israel and the United States could begin drafting a self-government plan for Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli-occupied territories before the end of the year, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
However, the official cautioned, the anticipated draft proposal would consist of a set of principles providing the framework for limited Palestinian autonomy. He added that translating it into reality will depend on political decisions to be made by the Egyptian and Israeli governments and on Palestinians' willingness to work out details of their future with Israel.
The official, who declined to be identified, spoke at a briefing as the three governments prepared for another session of autonomy talks beginning Wednesday in Cairo.
The next stage of the Camp David accords, which produced the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, calls for working out a five-year interim autonomy system for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israeli in 1967.
In a closely related development, ambassadors of Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands met with State Department officials yesterday in a new attempt at an agreement that would permit them to contribute troops for a peace-keeping force to patrol the Sinai peninsula after Israel completes its withdrawal from the occupied Egyptian territory next April.
The plan has run into trouble because the Europeans, led by Britain, have insisted on making clear that their participation in the Sinai force does not mean they are abandoning a European Economic Community initiative for Mideast peace.
Israel, which strongly opposes the EEC plan, has threatened to veto participation in the peace-keeping force by any country it regards as hostile to the Camp David process and has said it regards support for the EEC initiative and for an eight-point Saudi Arabian peace proposal, which has won praise in Europe, as evidence of such hostility.
U.S. officials are hopeful that the differences can be smoothed over by working out an announcement of the Europeans' participation using language that allows each government involved to make its own interpretation.
The goal is to find mutually acceptable language before the end of the week. Since Britain is the prime mover behind the EEC initiative, some sources said the matter is likely to be the subject of intense discussion with Douglas Hurd, minister of state in the British foreign office, who will be here from Wednesday until Friday.
At issue in these interrelated activities is the administration's desire to build momentum toward furthering the Middle East peace process by resolving the thorny Palestinian problem.
The administration also wants to help Egypt's new president, Hosni Mubarak, consolidate his control. He needs help in making headway on the Palestinian question and ensuring that Israel withdraws from the Sinai on schedule.
The autonomy talks resumed in September after a 16-month breakdown and, in an effort to avoid continued stalemate, Egypt and Israel agreed to abandon their approach of trying to work out a comprehensive plan covering all details of the self-rule system and work instead for a declaration of broad principles that should be the framework for a final plan.
At yesterday's briefing, the senior official insisted that this framework will not be "a vague document intended to cover up a lack of progress." Instead, he said, it will address all the necessary elements of an autonomy system, including the makeup and selection of the self-governing authority and its jurisdiction over such vital concerns as land, water and security.
"We are trying to erect a skeleton and then put flesh on it," he said. But he conceded that many details must be worked out before a viable autonomy plan is practicable, and he agreed that the Palestinians, who have shunned the talks, must work out with Israel how much authority they will have in each of the governmental areas involved.
The official, while noting there is "no constitutional link" between the autonomy talks and withdrawal from the Sinai, admitted that there is "a psychological link" involving Israel's concern about endangering its security through too many concessions.
For that reason, U.S. officials are concerned about soothing Israeli sensitivities sufficiently to allow formation of the peace force with European help. The particular target of Israeli suspicion is British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who is the main advocate of the EEC initiative.
According to diplomatic sources, Carrington, with the backing of the other Europeans, has made clear that they will not renounce their support of the EEC plan because all members of the community fear it will harm their relations with the Arab world.
But, the sources added, the Europeans also have indicated they want to help with the Sinai force and are willing to cooperate in finding language about their participation that will enable each nation to reserve its overall position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.