US pumps fresh air into Palestinian autonomy talks to keep Camp David peace plan afloat
A mid-February scorecard on Palestinian autonomy talks, Section A of the Camp David ''framework for peace in the Middle East'' might read:
* Egypt is in no hurry, may be casting about for alternatives, but won't abandon the Camp David negotiations altogether, even after the Sinai is fully under Cairo's control.
* Israel will accept no substitute for Camp David, wants an autonomy agreement before April 25, and is puzzled that Egypt doesn't grab at least a partial solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem.
* United States mediation efforts are less high-powered today than they were even a month ago, when Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was personally conducting negotiations in the Middle East -- and American good faith in at least one of the negotiating partners is in question.
Outlook: little optimism in Cairo or Jerusalem about the ability of State Department negotiator Richard Fairbanks to negotiate a compromise Palestinian autonomy agreement between Egypt and Israel. Mr. Fairbanks will be shuttling between the two countries this week trying to keep up Mr. Haig's January momentum.
Mr. Fairbanks' biggest obstacle appears to be Egyptian reluctance to come to agreement with Israel before the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali told a reporter for Israel Radio last week that the autonomy talks will continue past April 25. But American, Arab, and Israeli specialists see Egypt's drift toward the Arab bloc as a deemphasis of Camp David.
Moreover, Mr. Fairbanks' ability to coax along the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo may be seriously hindered by a Washington Post report late last week that Mr. Haig is highly pessimistic about Egyptian-American relations after April 25. If true, Mr. Haig's sentiments may indicate diminishing enthusiasm in the State Department for handling the complex, frustrating negotiations.
In Jerusalem, Israeli specialists see Egyptian foot-dragging as self-defeating. As they view it, Camp David's ''framework for peace'' is the only mechanism Israel will support for giving the 1.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem some sort of self-governance.
''I don't understand,'' a source involved in the autonomy talks told the Monitor, ''why the Egyptians or the rest of the Arabs for that matter don't take whatever they can. They can always say at the end of the five-year transitional period, 'OK, we tried it your way, now we've decided that we want a state of our own.' ''
The source, whose opinion is informed but does not reflect official Israeli policy, observes that since 1882, when the first wave of Zionist settlers began arriving in Palestine, ''The Palestinians and Arabs have continually repeated the same mistake: They have always wanted the maximum; they are never satisfied with the minimum.''
If Egypt abandons the autonomy talks at some stage and embraces the Saudi peace plan or the European initiative instead, ''The Egyptians will simply be playing chess with themselves. Israel will accept no substitute (to Camp David) as far as negotiations on Judea and Samaria (the Israeli term for the West Bank).''
This Israeli official disputes the theory that by distancing itself from Camp David after April 25 Egypt stands to gain financial support from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab states that have rejected the Camp David peace process all along.
He says Egypt may have lost up to $2.5 billion per year in Arab aid as a result of Anwar Sadat's peace initiative. But he contends that Western aid, renewed oil sales from Sinai and Red Sea wells, a secure Suez Canal, and the post-1978 Egyptian tourist boom have more than made up for the loss.
Even politically, this official says, Egypt may not have lost much by its peace treaty with Israel, for it (1) regained the whole of Sinai (92 percent of the territory lost by the Arab states in the 1967 war), (2) experienced quick economic progress, and (3) maintained its diplomatic links with most of the Arab world anyway, even if not at the ambassadorial level.
This official is blase about an Egyptian rapprochement with the rest of the Arab world -- which he agrees is occurring -- because he believes if it leads to a scrapping of Camp David Israel will then be free to deal with the occupied territories as it sees fit.
Another official contacted during the same series of interviews, however, sees Egypt's growing closeness with the Arab world as potentially leading to greater instability in the Middle East.
American diplomats admit that neither of these alternatives (a breakoff in autonomy talks or renewed Arab-Israeli tension) is in America's interest. But several diplomats agree that the Middle East is heading in one or another of these directions if Mr. Fairbanks cannot keep the autonomy talks moving.