Israel urged Egypt today to accept an early "agreement on general principles" for the governing of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to defuse mounting opposition at home to its commitment to complete the withdrawal of its forces from the Egyptian Sinai by next April.
Beginning a new two-day round of ministerial talks on Palestinian autonomy, Israeli officials made it clear that they considered some sort of agreement over the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip imperative as proof of Egypt's commitment to the Camp David peace process beyond next April's Sinai withdrawal.
The Israelis indicated that they brought no new proposals to the talks, saying they felt it was up to Egypt to take the initiative.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Egyptian officials repeatedly have insisted on their continuing commitment to Camp David since the assassination of president Anwar Sadat triggered serious doubts in Israel about the future of Egyptian policy.
An official in the high-ranking Israeli delegation here said they were "pleased to hear these good words from Cairo," but "we want to see good intentions translated into fact before we complete withdrawal from the Sinai."
Israeli officials admitted that Sadat's assassination, the U.S. sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia and increasing interest in a Saudi Arabian peace plan that Israel has vehemently rejected have caused "many questions to be raised in Israel about the future" and given strength to a "popular movement to stop withdrawal" from the Sinai.
Because of its continuing commitment to that withdrawal, an Israeli official said, Israel "is faced with a national tragedy in five months," when it will have to confront the explosive task of forcibly evacuating Israeli citizens -- including four parliamentary deputies -- who have taken up residence in the Sinai in the former Israeli settlement of Yamit and declared that they will not be budged.
A general agreement on autonomy principles, with the sticky details on security and governing powers to be decided later, would, in Israeli eyes, help defuse the situation at home.
"If the government can prove that peace is not just an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, but a real normalization of relations with Egypt, and that Egypt will continue with the peace process after April," a delegation official said, "then the government will be in a better position."
For the last two years Israel and Egypt have been at loggerheads over their contradictory interpretations of what the Palestinian autonomy agreed to at Camp David means.
Israel has been adamant in interpreting autonomy as little more than an "administrative council" for the occupied territories, where all the major governing powers, such as security, would continue to rest with Israel. Egypt has insisted that the self-governing authority to be created should provide for the eventual self-rule of the Palestinians.
Egyptian officials indicated privately this week that they expected no breakthroughs in this week's talks with a high-ranking Israeli delegation headed by Interior Minister Yosef Burg and including Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The Egyptian side will be led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Hassan Ali. The U.S. ambassadors to Cairo and Tel Aviv are representing Washington.
After their initial 2 1/2-hour meeting tonight, spokesmen for both sides confirmed that little progress had been made. A spokesman for the Israeli delegation said "disagreements still prevail, but the talks were useful." The Egyptian delegation spokesman said "no new ideas came from any of the three sides -- Egypt, Israel or the United States."
The low expectations for the talks by Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials were reinforced by Israeli officials' statements that they had no new proposals to make and expected Egypt to make the sort of concessions that would give them the general agreement of principle they want to have by next April.
"We have a given a lot and we feel we have taken enormous risks in this negotiation, risks that we feel are not appreciated in Europe or in the United States," an Israeli official said. "We feel now is the time for Egypt to give something."
The current positions represent something of a turnabout, since for the first time since the autonomy talks began it is Israel, not Egypt, that seems to be the most eager to make the negotiations successful.
Until recently, Israel had given the impression of dragging its feet on the autonomy talks, which had been made a condition for normal relations with Egypt at Camp David. It was always Egypt, with its need to show Arabs that Camp David was not a sellout of the Palestinians, that had sought to force progress.