Yawning gap divides Israel and Egypt at autonomy talks
New American eagerness to achieve progress on Palestinian autonomy for the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has put the spotlight on Egyptian-Israeli autonomy negotiations in Tel Aviv.
But despite the sense of urgency generated by the death of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, Egypt and Israel seem as widely separated as ever on the concepts and aims of autonomy.
Labor Party shadow Foreign Minister Abba Eban told Israel radio that he had been advised by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. on Oct. 21 that Israel should undertake some form of initiative in the autonomy talks to bolster newly-elected Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Eban reported that, according to Mr. Haig, the US has changed its order of priorities in the Middle East since Mr. Sadat's assassination and will focus on the autonomy talks over the next ''crucial'' months prior to Israel's final withdrawal from the Sinai in April 1982.
But as nine days of talks between senior Egyptian, American, and Israeli experts and diplomats gets under way - the second round since talks resumed in September 1981 after a 15-month hiatus, and the first round since President Sadat's death - the gap on key issues yawns cavernously wide.
''A difference in direction of almost 180 degrees,'' says Prof. Moshe Arens, chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament).
The gap, Professor Arens explained, is ''basically because Egypt has been looking for an autonomy framework which will ensure eventual (Israeli) withdrawal from Judea, Samaria (the West Bank), and Gaza. Israel has . . . been looking for the opposite, . . . in effect, an autonomy formula which will ensure a continued (Israeli) presence in those areas. I think it is not hard to understand why it will be difficult to find a meeting point somewhere to close that gap.''
The opposing viewpoints on the meaning and goals of autonomy are reflected in continuing Israeli-Egyptian differences over its functions and composition.
A key area of dispute is the powers and makeup of the Palestinian Self-Governing Authority (SGA), whose election is called for by the Camp David accords. Israel envisions the SGA as a small local administrative body running everyday affairs like health and education.
This definition corresponds to Israel's concept of autonomy: Palestinian control over their daily lives but not over the territory on which they live. The governing Likud Party's platform states that Israel will seek sovereignty over these areas after the five-year autonomy transition period.
Egypt, on the other hand, foresees the SGA as a large body with legislative, executive, and judicial powers in keeping with Egypt's concept of autonomy as a way station to full Palestinian self-determination.
Other major points of contention include control of internal and strategic security on the West Bank and Gaza: whether Israeli settlements should be governed by Israeli law or by the SGA; whether east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 War, should vote in the elections for the SGA - a proposition Israel flatly rejects; and control of land and water resources.
One way to achieve progress before April 1982 might be to draft an agreement on ''principles'' for autonomy, rather than bargaining on details. Israeli officials at the last round of talks in Cairo favored this approach, but some Israeli leaders feel this would only postpone the clash of views.