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Begin and Sadat to revive Palestinian 'autonomy' issue

This week Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli-Prime Minister Menachem Begin meet in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria in an attempt to revive the Camp David "autonomy talks" which began with a flourish 15 months ago, but have since petered out.

This time -- at their 11th summit conference -- Messrs. Begin and Sadat are expected to agree to resume talks on the thorny issue of Palestinian autonomy.

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Such talks could possibly begin in early October. But it is doubtful that the exchange will produce any major shifts of position or that any other Arab country will join the Camp David process.

Mr. Sadat may push for Israeli softening toward the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but Mr. Begin will not consider it.

"We might differ," Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali told the Monitor just prior to the summit. "The autonomy issue is one of crucial importance to peace. If Israel shows enough flexibility on it, and implements confidence-building measures, we will not fail. And this will encourage other parties, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan to participate."

Mr. Ali observed, however, that "if we start defining terms and elaborating on previously held points of view, we will be going back to the vicious circle that we were in before the talks came to a halt."

Egypt halted the talks in June 1980 to protest an Israeli bill declaring Jerusalem the "eternal capital" of the Jewish state. Even before suspension, however, the talks were bogged down by seemingly irreconcilable differences -- which remain today.

Egypt wanted the issue of Jerusalem's status put on the agenda and wanted "autonomy" to mean full self-government for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Israel would not discuss Jerusalem and argued that a future Palestinian "administrative council" must be subordinate to the Israeli military government, even after Israeli soldiers withdraw from the territories.

There is also the glaring omission of parties other than Egypt and Israel: no Palestinians, Jordanians, or Saudi Arabians. The talks, one weary Egyptian negotiator said shortly after they ended last summer, "were great exercises in futility."

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But in the past year, a flurry of crises have shaken the Mideast political landscape: the Gulf war, which divided Arabs; the conflicts in Lebanon, which brought to the fore American-Saudi peacemaking; and most recently, the intense midsummer battle between Israel and Palestinian forces, which ended in a cease-fire July 24 and put the diplomatic spotlight back on the Palestinians.

Western diplomats say it is very unlikely positions will change as a result of the summit. Here is how they see the issues being discussed at Alexandria:

* Palestinian participation: Mr. Sadat contends that the July 24 cease-fire must be built upon and the Palestinians brought into Camp David. Mr. Begin refuses to discuss PLO participation. The Egyptians have backed off Mr. Sadat's earlier call for the PLO to join the talks, particularly after American refusal to start a dialogue with the PLO. Mr. Sadat says the PLO is not the sole representative of Palestinians, and observers believe Egypt-PLO ties are still weak.

* Autonomy talks: Egypt has few new suggestions for advancing negotiations but wants them to resume under a "new conception," says Mr. Ali. Mr. Sadat is seeking Israeli "confidence-building measures," including freedom of expression and movement for Palestinians and release of political prisoners.

* Sinai withdrawal: Egypt and Israel will focus on the final Israeli pullout next April. This may include the question of the status of the city of Rafah (divided under a 1948 truce), the question of compensation for Israeli settlers, status of settlers wishing to stay behind (which Mr. Sadat rejects), and a timetable for subphases of withdrawal.

Going into the summit, the Israeli stance seems rigid. The Begin view is that Jordan already is a Palestinian state. An Israeli official recently said the government does not object to "a self-governing Arab ethnic entity" in part of Israel but will not consider an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Diplomats agree that while Mr. Sadat stands in good favor in the West, particularly in the US, he does not have the clout to pressure an adamant Mr. Begin. Such pressure, these diplomats say, will have to come via direct American influence with Mr. Begin.

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