US sees 'window of opportunity' on Palestinian autonomy talks
The United States is preparing a new push for an Egyptian-Israeli agreement on Palestinian autonomy, State Department officials say.
Plans for such an effort have coincided with a warming of US-Israeli relations. This, in turn, could mean a revival of some aspects of the now suspended strategic cooperation agreement with Israel.
But US officials remain concerned about the tense situation on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan, the fragility of the Lebanon situation, and the possibility that the Israelis might invade southern Lebanon. The explosiveness of these situations has added urgency to a new search for a solution to the Palestinian question.
As the Americans see it, a ''window of opportunity'' has now opened for the US and Israel to renew negotiations on Palestinian autonomy. The Israelis have completed their traumatic and much disputed evacuation of the Sinai. Prime Minister Menachem Begin has survived a political crisis. Relations between the US and Israel seem to be improving. And elections in both the US and Israel are far enough away to allow the two countries to focus on the Palestinian issue unencumbered by the emotionalism which usually accompanies elections in both nations.
State Department officials say that the US, while not departing from the basic Camp David formula, is preparing to offer some new ideas aimed at breathing life into the stalemated Egyptian-Israeli autonomy talks. One source said that the first hints of a new initiative are likely to come in a speech on the Middle East to be given by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr. on May 26 before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
Then, President Reagan himself is expected to get more directly involved. The President is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Begin in Washington on June 21. A State Department official said that it was also possible that Secretary of State Haig's special Middle East envoy, Richard Fairbanks, will return to the Middle East before the Reagan-Begin meeting takes place. Mr. Fairbanks traveled to Cairo and Jerusalem earlier this month without any signs of progress to show for his efforts.
The Israelis have been insisting that any new talks with Egypt on Palestinian autonomy be held in Jerusalem. The Egyptians, reluctant to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, have refused to accept that city as the site for new talks. The US is expected to propose that talks be held in Washington or in the capital of a neutral nation to resolve this disagreement.
More difficult to resolve will be the Egyptian-Israeli disagreement over a proposed statement of principles. It would touch on security issues, elections for the Palestinians now living under Israeli occupation, and the size and powers of the Palestinian administrative council for the West Bank and Gaza district which was agreed to under the Camp David accords of 1978.
The Egyptians want a council of more than forty members, which would hold considerable powers. They want the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem to be able to vote in elections for the council. The Israelis want to restrict the size of the council to fewer than 20 members. They charge that the Egyptians are trying to turn the council into a kind of legislative assembly. One new idea which is reported to be under consideration by the State Department is to give the Arabs in East Jersualem ''at-large'' voting rights.
The Israelis are hoping, meanwhile, that the US will agree to revive aspects of the strategic cooperation agreement with Israel which was suspended by President Reagan last Dec. 18 because of American opposition to the Israeli decision to annex the Golan Heights.
The Israelis are particularly interested in moving ahead with the parts of the agreement that would strengthen Israel's defense industry. The agreement called for $200 million worth of American purchases of Israeli-manufactured military equipment, for the use of some US-provided military sales credits by the Israeli government to purchase other Israeli-produced goods and services, and the possible use of other military sales credits by third countries to purchase Israeli defense items and services.
An Israeli official said that ''the signs are good'' that these aspects of the agreement will be revived shortly. Israel's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, is expected to discuss these issues with Secretary of State Haig and US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger early this week in the course of a visit to Washington.
But State Department officials are convinced that recent Israeli actions on the West Bank have merely succeeded in ''radicalizing'' many of the Palestinians there. The Israelis, one official said, have been ''closing all the safety valves.'