Returning and Redemption
alexander-haigSecretary of State Alexander Haig ended his two-day visit to Israel today with a frank admission that very little progress was made toward narrowing the differences between Israel and Egypt over autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Haig told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport before his departure for Cairo that “I would like to emphasize that there are still far more differences than there are agreements and there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

Although he continued to define his visit –his second in two weeks to Israel and Egypt — as a “fact-finding” mission, Haig said “We did bring some ideas and will bring some ideas to Cairo.” He did not disclose the nature of those ideas. “I will pass on from here to Cairo and continue the fact-finding process,” he said.

Haig made a point of introducing one of his aides, Richard Fairbanks, former Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations, hinting that he would represent the U.S. at the autonomy negotiations. He said it was too early to formally announce Fairbanks’ appointment as his special envoy for the talks but observed that the important part of his name was its first syllable — “fair”.

Begin Rejects U.S. Proposal

Haig met with Premier Menachem Begin for four hours last night, twice as long as originally scheduled, indicating that they had discussed the problems of autonomy agreement in considerable depth. He emerged from the meeting saying there was “a great deal more progress to be made.” He had a second session with Begin this morning.

It is believed that at last night’s meeting Begin categorically rejected an American proposal to include East Jerusalem Arabs in the administrative Council which would be the self-governing body in the occupied territories under the autonomy scheme. Haig’s talks with Begin reportedly concentrated on the size and authority of the administrative council.

The Secretary of State reportedly proposed a 40-member body. Israel objects to any body of over 20 members on grounds that it could become the nucleus of a Palestinian parliament. Egypt is said to want an 80-member administrative council.

There is also wide disagreement over its powers. Israel would veto any proposal to allow the council to enact laws. Haig suggested that it at least have authority to pass municipal regulations. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly tried to convince Haig why Israel cannot be flexible on issues of internal and external security related to autonomy.

Problem of Settlements Discussed

Haig met this morning with the ministerial autonomy committee headed by Interior Minister Yosef Burg, Israel’s chief negotiating body. Their discussion reportedly was devoted to the problem of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Haig was told that they were of vital security importance to Israel and that settlement activity would continue on the West Bank even after autonomy went into effect.

According to informed sources, Haig demonstrated deep knowledge of the various aspects of the autonomy negotiations and seemed determined to achieve a modicum of progress during the delicate period between now and April 26 when Israel is required to complete its withdrawal from Sinai. Haig seemed determined to avoid any pitfalls that might delay the withdrawal.

He and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir held a joint press conference at Ben Gurion Airport before the American party left for Cairo. The Israeli Foreign Minister sounded more upbeat than his guest.

“I want to emphasize that progress was achieved in all the spheres and can safely describe the talks as having been excellent and invaluable,” Shamir said. “New light has been thrown on many points under discussion. We have once more demonstrated the seriousness of our commitment to the peace process and highlighted the spirit of cooperation existing between the U.S. and the Israeli delegations,” Shamir said.

Haig replied, “I do feel that we made progress in clarifying some of these issues and in developing a possibility of solutions for some. There remain very important differences in other areas.” He added-

“What we are seeking to do is, in light of all the previous efforts, to see if it is possible to close a number of existing differences which exist — and in the light of a previous question, I would like to emphasize that there are still far more differences than there are agreements and there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

Haig also said- “What we are after is the achievement of a successful autonomy agreement in principle. I believe that that is achievable but it is going to take a great deal of effort and time.”

Haig is expected to return directly to Washington after his talks in Cairo tomorrow. There were no indications that the autonomy talks will be resumed in the near future.