The negotiations between Egypt and Israel over Palestinian autonomy are starting like a championship fight between two boxers who respect but dislike each other and are both confident they will win.
Round two ended today with no damaging blows struck and neither side ahead, but with the participants aware that a tough struggle is only beginning.
Two days of exploratory talks have not produced an agenda - let alone any change in well-known positions on important issues - but they did not end in stalemate either. A statement by the Egyptian, Israel and American delegations said one member of each will meet next week to "begin work" on a draft list of topics for the negotiations."
The outcome of that meeting will be the subject of discussion at the next full session of the three delegations in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, June 25 and 26.
American sources said the agenda probably will not be settled before Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin comes here to see President Anwar Sadat in early July. Sadat, talking to reporters today after meeting Josef Burg, head of the Israeli delegation, declined to comment on the progress of the talks, but said that by the time of Begin's visit, "we may answer some of your questions."
Sadat looked more rested and relaxed than in recent months. He chatted amicably with Burg although there is hardly a point at issue on which they do not strongly disagree.
Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali and Israeli Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir said the gap between their positions in these talks was "very wide." But all participants expected that, and there was no feeling of hopelessness about negotiations despite the apparently irreconcilable differences of view. Indeed, Ghali and Tamir expressed confidence that the negotiations would succeed and reports of failure or impasse appear to be premature.
An American source said he was "surprised at how limited the friction was even though they - Egypt and Israel - hold positions which are quite incompatible."
That is partly because, after yesterday's testy verbal exchange the particpants "agreed that the work of the negotiations and the progress sought in them will be best served by a minimum of public debate," their communique said. But it also is because neither side has yet been called on to yield anything.
There has been no formal discussion of such intractable points as the status of the Arabs of East Jerusalem, the powers of the autonomous Palestinian government, water rights in the occupied West Bank or the relationship between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
An American official said that, while he detected no "foot-dragging" by Egypt or Israel on procedural matters so far considered, "sooner or later we're going to have to find a way to discuss the undiscussable.