President Anwar Sadat abruptly halted talks in Jerusalem tonight and ordered the Egyptian delegation to return to Cairo but a total breakdown of the Middle East peace negotiations was averted through the intervention of President Carter.
After a telephone call from Carter late tonight, it was announced here, Sadat agreed to the resumption Saturday of military talks between Egypt and Israel that were being held in conjunction with the higher-level political talks in Jerusalem.
Sadat, who acted after two days of brooding in seclusion over the troubled course of the negotiations, also called an emergency session of Egypt's Parliament for Saturday to hear a report from him on the status of the peace initiative.
Sadat has often used Parliament as a forum for his major pronouncements on international affairs, including the speech in November in which he said he was willing to go to Israel to seek peace. That speech was the starting point of the history-making initiative that now appears to be bogging down.
The official announcement that the head of the Egyptian negotiating team, Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel, was being recalled was carefully worded to avoid saying that the negotiations themselves were suspended.
But with the recall of the Egyptian delegation from Jerusalem and an announcement by Egypt that the military talks would not be held as scheduled on Thursday, the direct peace talks were in effect broken off until Carter intervened.
Egypt's state-controlled television interrupted its regular programming late tonight to announce that Carter had telephoned Sadat to ask why he was pulling his team out of the political negotiations in Jerusalem and was told that "Israel wants the land, not peace."
But in appreciation for the efforts Carter has made toward bringing peace to the Middle East, the television reported, Sadat agreed to the resumption two days late of the military negotiations.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said in Washington that Carter and Sadat spoke for about 10 minutes.
An administration official in Washington said Carter urged Sadat "to keep the negotiating process and the progress toward peace going." Sadat, the official said, reaffirmed his desire for peace.
Carter has not called Begin and has no plans to call him, officials in Washington said.
It was the second time in five days that high level U.S. intervention had staved off a possible collapse of the Egyptian-Israel peace negotiations. Last weekend Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stepped in with a compromise over the wording of the agenda of the Jerusalem talks when it appeared that Sadat might not send his delegation to Israel.
The immediate response from Carter to Sadat's decision to bring his delegation home is sure that the United States is deeply concerned about the progress of the talks, but the Egyptians feel strongly that Washington has so far done little to dislodge the Israelis from old hardline positions that Sadat's peace initiative was designed to change.
Vance is due here Friday, and there is little doubt that the Egyptians will now be expecting him to bring some word that the United States is prepared to deal strongly with Israel's refusal to give up its settlements in the Sinai or even consider withdrawing its military forces from the West Bank.
That was the apparent goal of Sadat's decision to play his strongest card - the threat to both Israel and the United States of a return to hostility and tension perhaps for generations to come - at this surprisingly early point in the game.
Authoritative Egyptian sources have said that Sadat considered this threat to be his most powerful argument in the negotiations but they did not expect him to use it until it was clear beyond doubt that the talks had failed or that the United States had refused to nudge Israel toward an acceptable solution - that is, toward a commitment in principle to withdraw from the occupied territories and to give some form of self-government to the Palestinians.
The Cairo press has been saying that members of the Egyptian delegation, and Sadat himself, were surprised and offended by the Israeli attitude and by the tone of remarks made at a dinner last night by Prime Minister Menahem Begin.
The Egyptians were dismayed that after all the concessions they feel Sadat has offered, the Israelis were clinging to the same demands that they made before Sadat went to Jerusalem.
But there had been nothing in the optimistic reports from Jerusalem earlier today to indicate that a breakdown was already approaching until tonight when Information Minister Abdel Moneim sawi went on television to announce that the delegation was being recalled.
He said Sadat acted because "it has become clear from following the Israeli stand and statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan that they all aim at deadlocking the situation and submitting partial solutions which can never lead to the establishment of durable, just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
In the jargon of Middle East peace talks, that meant Egypt thought the Israelis were stalling on the Palestinian issue and clinging to their settlements in the Sinai in the hope of driving Sadat into a bilateral peace on Israeli terms.
Sawi said it was "unacceptable to resort to bargaining and wasting time" over issues that "are clear to the conscience of the entire world."
In that announcement, and in the unfolding of today's rapidfire events, can be seen once again the fundamentals of Sadat's negotiating strategy. He has undertaken, with considerable success, to win support from the Europeans nations and other democracies for the proposition that Israel cannot have peace if it keeps the territories and denies rights to the Palestinians.
Armed with that moral support and his own offer to accept Israel into the fraternity of Middle East nations, Sadat wants Israel to drop what he sees as irrelevant claims of security needs and retreat to the frontiers that virtually all the Arabs are prepared to accept - and he wants the Americans to push Israel along that path.
Having no credible military option and no oil leverage to speak of, Sadat has only the threat of withdrawing his good will to bring this off, and he is apparently ready to use that threat liberally.
The announcement that the negotiators were being recalled followed several days of deepening gloom among the Egyptians people, who were suddenly beginning to talk of "fall-back positions" and "last resort options" for Sadat where only a month ago they were giddy with the prospect of imminent peace.
High-level Egyptian sources say this depression has resulted not from the fact that the negotiations were turning out to be difficult, which they expected, but from the fact that Israel appeared completely unwilling or unable to appreciate what is seen here as a complete and historic turnaround that Sadat engineered at great risk to himself.