Israel's Cabinet agreed in principle today to a proposed joint U.S.-Israeli statement on European participation in the Sinai peace-keeping force but voted to ask the United States for "clarifications" on the draft.
The statement, intended to break the deadlock between Israel and four European nations that have been invited to join the Sinai force, will be returned to U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. with some proposed amendments but no substantive change in its thrust, Israeli sources said.
By making its acceptance of the proposed statement conditional, the Israelis appeared to be putting the burden on the United States to come up with final acceptable language. In a communique, the Cabinet said the issue could be resolved in a "matter of days."
A State Department spokesman said Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. discussed the Israeli Cabinet's request late today. He would give no details. Sources said the United States foresaw no serious problems and also expected the matter to be resolved within a few days.
Hammered out in a long negotiating session Friday between Haig and Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the statement reportedly asserts that the Sinai multinational force is to be established on the basis of the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The force is to patrol the Sinai when Israeli troops complete their withdrawal on April 25.
It was understood that participants in the force, including Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands, will not be required to endorse the statement formally and explicitly but can remain silent and still be acceptable as participants in the force. If the governments of the European nations reaffirm previous statements linking their participation to their positions on Palestinian self-determination in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, they will be regarded by Israel as unacceptable for the force, sources said.
After the Haig-Shamir talks, an Israeli official said in Washington that the expectation was that the United States and Israel would clear the way for participation of the four European countries by declaring jointly that, in effect, their presence in the Sinai force does not detract from the Camp David accords and does not bring into the process any ideas contained in the European statements.
The Cabinet debated the issue for three hours today as the ministerial defense committee, a device that makes its deliberations classified and reports on them subject to censorship. Cabinet Secretary Aryeh Naor refused to say how Israel wants to amend the Haig-Shamir draft.
However, Israeli sources said one issue over which the Cabinet had been balking was mention of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied since the 1967 war.
The impasse arose last week when the four European nations, in supplementary statements to their formal acceptance of roles in the multinational force, reaffirmed the European Community's June 1980 declaration calling for Palestinian self-determination and the involvement of the Palestine Liberation Organization in negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin then told the United States that Israel would veto participation in the force by the four because of their adherence to policies that "contradict" the Camp David accords and Haig asked Shamir to come to Washington for discussions on a compromise statement.
Disqualification of the Europeans would complicate U.S. efforts to put together a broad-based multinational force because Canada, Australia and New Zealand indicated they would not join without the Europeans' participation. So far, only the United States, Fiji, Colombia and Uruguay have joined.
Begin, who is recuperating in a hospital from a broken hip suffered in a fall, was absent from today's Cabinet session but he reportedly consulted by telephone with other ministers. Consideration of the joint statement was put off Sunday when Begin's doctors cut short a Cabinet meeting in the hospital.
Israeli officials said the Cabinet would meet to reconsider, and possibly formally approve, the statement as soon as it is returned by the State Department.
The joint statement, intended as a face-saving compromise for both Israel and the Europeans, appears to offer an opportunity for both sides to interpret it as they see fit. Israel, on one hand, could view it as supplanting the previous European statements, including the offensive clauses about Palestinian rights. The European states, by remaining silent, could pacify Arab world reaction by pointing to the parliamentary records in which the statements presumably will remain.
The Cabinet today also gave formal approval to the nomination of the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee chairman, Moshe Arens, as Israel's ambassador to the United States, succeeding Ephraim Evron early next year.
Arens, a member of the Herut Party, the nucleus of Begin's ruling Likud bloc, voted against the Israeli-Egyptian treaty during the parliamentary debate and ratification but he has since supported it and its provisions for proposed autonomy for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.