In retaliation for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's breaking off of the Israeli-Egyptian political negotiations in Jerusalem, the Israeli Cabinet yesterday decided against the immediate resumption of military negotiations in Cairo.
Israel officials stressed that this move was not meant to close the door on peace talks but to send Sadat a signal that Israel can use tactics that are as tough as his.
The officials said that a breathing space in the talks would also be used to find out through the United States whether Sadat's public positions are his final word - in which case there is no point in resuming negotiations - or whether flexibility can be found through quiet diplomacy.
The Israelis say they want to take advantage of the continued presence here of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alfred Atherton to try to bridge some of the gaps between Israel and Egypt, starting with the search for a joint declaration of principles for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
The Cairo military committee talks that Israel suspended today were set up as a parallel track to the political committee talks that broke up in Jerusalem last week. The military committee has been dealing with the purely Israeli-Egyptian problems, while the political talks have dealt with the more general Arab-Israeli issues.
Following a three-hour debate, the Israeli Cabinet issued a communique saying it was postponing the departure of the Israeli military delegation headed by Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and that it would consider the matter again "in the near future."
The cabinet reportedly was split between those who wanted to teach Sadat the lesson that he could not call all the shots on the timing and conduct of the negotiating and those - led by Weizman himself - who held that Israel should demonstrate its attachment to peace talks by going ahead despite Sadat's tactics and the harsh language in his speech to the Egyptian parliament yesterday.
The decision to put off Weizman's trip to Cairo and to reconsider the matter soon was apparently a compromise between the two positions.
The United States had asked Prime Minister Menahem Begin to go ahead with the military conversations despite Sadat's postponement of the political talks.
Atherton presumably reiterated that advice last night during a report he gave to Begin of the meeting that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had with Sadat in Egypt on Friday.
[Secretary of State Cyrus Vance returned to Washington yesterday saying he expects Israel and Egypt to resume their political negotiations, probably within a week to 10 days, the Associated Press reported.]
[On the flight home, Vance singled out the conciliatory part of Sadat's speech to parliament. "I am pleased that it was made clear that the door to peace is open," he said.]
[Although Vance conceded that "we're in the downs now" in the peace negotiating process, he said, "We will go forward again."]
The Cabinet communique also complained about "a campaign of grave vilifications" against Israel in which "Sgyptian newspaper even used notorious anti-Semitic expressions." Begin has stressed his personal shock at being called a "shylock" by an Egyptian paper.
The communique called Sadat's speech "extremist" and "aggressive" and said that it contained ultimata that are totally unacceptable to Israel."
Israel rejects Sadat's demand that the Israelis should agree before negotiations to total withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war and to the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people.
There is apprehension in Israel about what Begin will say today when he addresses the Israeli parliament, in the words of the Cabinet communique, to "respond to President Sadats speech."
Labor Party opposition leader Shimon Peres asked why the cabinet had decided to schedule a parliamentary debate today since the time has come to lower the rhetorical level between Israel and Egypt by "shutting off the microphones." Avraham Shirir, the parliamentary leader of Begin's own Likud group, spoke in a similar vein.
Many of Begin's own followers have said that some of the prime minister's recent impassioned statements have given Sadat a pretext for breaking off the political talks. This they see as a tactical error.
U.S. officials reportedly have told both sides that they think it is time to avoid inflammatory statements. Some official Israeli analysts note that despite what they took to be Sadat's insulting and objectionable tone Saturday, there were elements of diplomatic substance that seemed conciliatory.
They said that even though Sadat spoke of the Palestinian's right to self-determination, he avoided speaking of a Palestinian state and noted that he avoided speaking of the return to Arab rule of the Old City of Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967.
Begin had taken particular exception to a statement last week by Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel that Jerusalem should be partitioned again.
Even the freewheeling Israeli press is saying that the time has come to revert to behind-the-scenes diplomacy and that Sadat's actions in the last week demonstrate the practical limits to conducting delicate negotiations in the presence of the news media.
Israeli officials said they were prepared before Sadat broke off the political talks to discuss a compromise on the main Israeli-Egyptian problem - the continued presence of Israeli settlements in the Rafiah area of the northern Sinai Peninsula.
The Israelis say they were willing to entertain the idea that has circulated in Washington and elsewhere of swappong a portion of Israel's Negev Desert region for the small coastal section between the Gaza Strip and the city of El Arish.
The Israelis are adamant about keeping the Rafiah area, they now admit, not because of the presence of civilian settlements there but for strategic reasons. The area blocks the best Sinai invasion route along the coastal plain and it denies Egypt physical access to the Gaza Strip, with its poor and traditionally discontented Arab population.
Ranaan Weitz, head of the Settlements Department of the Jewish Agency said today, "the Rafiah settlement project is necessary for security reasons. In no time, in no way can we allow a land connection between Egypt and the Gaza Strip."
One of the Begin speeches to which Sadat objected the most was made two weeks ago at a meeting of Begin's own political party. The Israelis say they have made a point of taking into account Sadat's need to make hardline statements for the benefit of the rest of the Arab world and that he should have been willing to distinguish between what Begin said out of domestic political necessity and his serious negotiating statements.
A phase of quiet diplomacy with American help would reduce misunderstanding by eliminating the need, for a time, to make as many public statements, the Israelis contend.
A public opinion poll released today showed that 71 percent of those questioned rejected an Israeli return to the 1967 borders and that 72 percent opposed placing the Israeli settlements in the Rafiah area under even theoretical Egyptian sovereignty, but 60 percent opposed new settlements in the occupied territories while negotiations are going on.
The Hebrew University poll, taken before the breakup of the Jerusalem talks, also showed that 91 percent of Israelis oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Asked whether the Israeli government's peace proposals were clear to them, 46 percent of those polled said yes and 54 percent said they were unclear.