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MIDDLE EAST: Sandstorm at Kilometer 101

7 minute read

“Kilometer 101,” the United Nations checkpoint along the Cairo-Suez road, stood once again at the crossroads between peace and war in the Middle East.

There, in a cluster of sandswept tents guarded by blue-helmeted troops of the U.N. Emergency Force, Israeli and Egyptian negotiators met once more in an effort to work out the details of the Suez ceasefire.

Five of the six points in U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ceasefire package had already been achieved.

The Cairo-Suez road was open for transporting nonmilitary supplies to the city of Suez; for evacuating the city’s civilian wounded; for sending food, water and medical supplies to Egypt’s Third Army trapped on the east bank of the canal. Checkpoints were manned by U.N. forces. The cease-fire was generally holding up. Perhaps most important, the exchange of war prisoners —241 Israelis and 8,305 Egyptians —was completed late in the week.

What remained to be settled was the “disengagement and separation of forces” called for in the agreement. Egypt insisted that Israeli troops abide by its interpretation of the ambiguous Kissinger plan and withdraw to the positions they held on Oct. 22—before they surrounded the city of Suez and trapped the Egyptian Third Army. The Israelis maintained that the Oct. 22 lines were uncharted and suggested instead that both sides withdraw to the positions they held before the Yom Kippur War began Oct. 6. To the Egyptians, this would mean the loss of their newly restored position on the east bank of the canal and an admission that they had gained nothing in the October war.

The chief negotiators at Kilometer 101 were Egypt’s Major General Mohamed Abdel Ghani el Gamasi, Israel’s Major General Aharon Yariv, and the commander of the U.N. forces, Major General Ensio Siilasvuo of Finland, who presided over the meetings. At an earlier session, General Siilasvuo had asked each side to come back with a set of proposals that it thought might be acceptable to the other. On Thursday, after a three-day recess, the generals returned to face each other once again over Israeli coffee and Egyptian pastry.

Terse Announcement. The session lasted 4½ hours, making it the longest so far. Outside, the day changed from a bright, clear November morning into a raging sandstorm, but inside the tent the negotiating continued. At one point, Yariv walked over to the Israeli tent within the U.N. compound, to telephone Jerusalem. Later, both Yariv and Gamasi meandered out of the U.N. tent and talked earnestly together for a long time, as clouds of desert sand swirled around them. Finally, the conference ended with the terse announcement that the talks would continue the next day.

Apparently the negotiators were making progress. General Yariv proposed a compromise formula that could lead to a settlement. Under the plan, Israel would withdraw its forces from the west bank entirely, thereby freeing the Egyptian Third Army to retreat to the west bank of the canal. The Egyptians would be permitted to retain a limited force on the east bank, and the Israelis would pull back about six miles eastward into the Sinai. U.N. troops would take up positions between the two sides; Egypt would reopen the Suez Canal, and Israeli shipping would receive free passage through the canal for the first time.

Whether the formula would prove to be acceptable to the Egyptians remained to be seen. But certainly Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was under pressure to achieve some quick progress in his negotiations with the Israelis. This week he is scheduled to meet with other Arab leaders in Algiers, and he will be obliged to prove to his more militant brethren that his policy of moderation, negotiation and trust in Kissinger is paying dividends. So far two Arab states—Libya and Iraq —have said that they will not attend the meeting; both oppose negotiations with the Israelis. Even Syria, Egypt’s closest ally hi the October war, has refused to take the first step toward negotiation by exchanging prisoners of war with Israel. So Sadat will have his hands full trying to retain a semblance of Arab unity at Algiers.

The Egyptians are anxious to get the formal peace conference under way by about Dec. 9, the date Kissinger originally proposed, in order to sustain the diplomatic momentum created by the war. The U.S. is also anxious to get the meeting started, so that it can argue to the Arab oil-producing nations that they might just as well step up the flow of oil while the conference is in progress.

Israel, on the other hand, is in much less of a hurry. Its national elections are scheduled to be held Dec. 31, and the political campaign will begin Dec. 8. Premier Meir’s government has already been weakened by domestic bickering over the recent war, and will hardly be in a position to negotiate intensively —much less make significant concessions—until the elections are out of the way. Israel is also angry about Egypt’s continuing blockade of the Bab el Mandeb straits at the southern end of the Red Sea, and in addition it is waiting to see how the Arab summit turns out. If the parley should prove to be a reprise of the Khartoum Conference of 1967, at which the Arabs vowed “no negotiations, no peace, no recognition,” then the Israelis would seem to have little reason to make concessions.

Conciliatory Gesture. The Palestinian guerrilla groups, in the meantime, were trying to decide what goals to press for at the eventual conference. Yasser Arafat and the more moderate of the Palestinians favor the return of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan, and would turn this territory into a separate Palestinian state; but they do not call for an end to the state of Israel.

George Habash and the more militant Palestinians still insist on the dissolution of Israel and the establishment of a united Palestine in which Moslems, Jews and Christians would live together.

Though they disagree on so many other matters, most Palestinian leaders agreed to fly to Moscow last week to discuss their policies. As expected, they won the Soviet Union’s endorsement of their participation in any peace conference on the Middle East.

Jordan’s King Hussein is not particularly anxious to have the Palestinians at the peace table, but he made a conciliatory gesture toward them by proposing that they be given the right to decide whether a newly created Palestine should be an independent state or linked to Jordan. Under Hussein’s plan, Jordan would recover the West Bank of the Jordan, then hold a plebiscite among Palestinians there to determine whether they would remain under Hussein. The Palestinian guerrilla groups are inclined to push instead for the immediate creation of an independent state.

Thorny as they are, such questions were side issues to the major problem of making permanent the ceasefire.

Egyptian and Israeli armies still face each other along the Suez front. Until they are separated behind negotiated lines, the danger exists that a chance incident or miscalculation could spark renewed fighting. It is that potential that caused all parties to focus their concern and attention on the negotiations at the tent city at Kilometer 101.

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