Amid a background of growing anxiety here over perceived U.S. ambivalence toward Palestinian autonomy negotiations, Israeli officials said today they are encouraged by new steps the Reagan administration appears to be taking to accelerate the moribund Camp David peace process.
The Israeli Cabinet discussed the issue in a meeting, and while some ministers were still reported to be concerned about what they termed a lack of urgency in Washington to get the autonomy talks moving, informed government officials said there have been clear signs recently from the Reagan administration of a change in U.S. direction.
They cited the recall to Washington of Ambassador to Egypt Alfred K. Atherton and Ambassador to Israel Samuel W. Lewis to take part in discussions on autonomy, and recurring reports that U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. will not only visit Egypt and Israel next month, but will soon appoint a special U.S. envoy to the Egyptian-Israeli autonomy negotiations.
Senior Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, previously had expressed concern that the failure to name a special U.S. envoy to the talks reflected declining confidence in the Camp David peace process by the Reagan administration.
Israeli officials said, however, that they had no indication of confirmation of a report in Cairo's October Magazine that Haig will appoint retired undersecretary of state Joseph Sisco to the post.
"We're anxious for any indication that the United States wants to speed up the Camp David process, and the appointment of a special ambassador would be such an indication," a government official said today.
When asked whether such an appointment might not signal U.S. intentions to increase pressure on Israel to make concessions in the negotiations, the official said, "The Camp David framework is set, and our limits are very clear, so there is no use for pressure. It's a question of finding the right formula, and if the talks can be speeded up to find that formula, all the better."
The Cabinet met today in the guise of the Ministerial Defense and Security Committee, meaning that its deliberations are classified and ministers are prohibited from commenting on them.
Shamir and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon are known to have reported on the recent U.S. moves on autonomy, and Yitzhak Modai, minister without portfolio, was reported to have raised the issue of closer scrutiny by Israel of positions being taken by the other parties in the talks.
Modai later said he had stopped short of calling for a postponement of Israel's withdrawal from the last third of the Sinai Peninsula on April 25, although he said that between now and then attitudes of Egypt and the United States toward the autonomy talks should be watched closely.
"All I'm calling for is precaution, and watching steps and positions more carefully, not with the view of not fulfilling our part of the peace treaty, not at all. But just to make sure the other parties maintain their share in the peace treaty and the general understanding of the Camp David agreements," Modai said.
Modai cited a statement made yesterday by Egyptian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Butros Ghali, in an interview in the French daily Le Monde, that Egypt is eager to see a new European peace initiative after the April 25 withdrawal from the Sinai. Ghali also said that after April, autonomy talks should be carried on by Israel, the United States, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and, possibly, by Jordan.
Modai said Ghali's statement made it appear that Egypt is not a party to the peace process, and "is an indication that one cannot and should not overlook."
Israeli sources confirmed that Israel has formally asked the United States to exercise its veto if the U.N. Security Council is asked to vote sanctions against Israel for the annexation of the Golan Heights. The council will meet Tuesday.
"We suppose they will use their veto, but we have no formal confirmation of that," an Israeli official said, referring to a statement, made in a television interview last Sunday, by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick that it would be "inconceivable" for the United States not to veto sanctions.
The Israeli government had no official reaction to a statement made by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud, in an interview in The New York Times, that Saudi Arabia will recognize Israel's right to exist if Israel returns occupied territories and recognizes Palestinian rights. It appeared to be the most explicit Saudi statement yet regarding recognition of Israel, going beyond the implied recognition in the eight-point Saudi peace plan advanced by Crown Prince Fahd last summer.
When asked about the statement, an Israeli official said, "We stand on our principle that we are ready to negotiate with any Arab country, including Saudi Arabia, without prior conditions. From what we've seen, this is full of preconditions."
The official said Israel's rejection of the eight-point plan is "well-known," and that Prince Saud's statement appeared to contain the eight-point plan as its "core."
He added, "If Saudi Arabia wants to negotiate with us, they know the address."