The Egyptian-Israeli summit that ended here today draws an apparent close to the special phase of Middle East peacemaking in which drama, symbol and gesture were enough to electrify the world and affect the course of history.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's three-day visit to Egypt and his three hours of talks with President Anwar Sadat seemed strangely ordinary. According to their spokesmen, the two leaders' discussions centered more on modest next steps in the peace process than on the sweeping shows of reconciliation of the past 19 months.
Viewed in one light, the new atmosphere shows how far their peacemaking has come since Sadat stunned his friends and foes alike with his November 1977 trip to Jerusalem and the slogan, "No more war." Seen another way, however, the Alexandria "business summiit" indicates that from now on, if the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is to be translated into a broader Middle East settlement, gestures no longer suffice.
In either perspective, the discussions here showed that the simple sight of Begin and Sadat sitting side by side or walking arm in arm has lost its shock value. The Phrases that used to mean so much - "my friend the prime minister," or "my dear friend" - no longer seem as dramatic as they were when Sadat and Begin first began using them only a little more than a year ago.
Nevertheless, there were some attempts to inject drama into the proceedings. Begin declared he has seen "the reality of peace" in the faces of Egyptians who crowded around his car after he visited a graceful Alexandria synagogue Tuesday. Pleased by that reception, he alighted from his car on the beachside corniche yesterday and again plunged into an Egyptian crowd, shaking hands and making small talk.
But these symbols of friendship, which would have attracted much attention only six months ago, generated little genuine excitement among the Alexandria population or even Israeli and other foreign journalists covering the talks. Begin had done that act during his visit to Cairo last April, after all, and he was now making his fourth visit on Egyptian soil for his seventh round of discussions with Sadat.
The talks themselves, according to spokesmen's accounts, concentrated on business whose general lines already have traced in the Camp David accords and the March 26 peace treaty. Begin and Sadat themselves qualified the meeting as successful and important but made no claims of breaking new ground.
Although there was the possiblity of secret agreement on a major issue to be announced later, all reports seeping out of the talks indicated rather a review of positions and management of concrete problems growing from the peace treaty.
Begin proudly announced, for example, that Sadat had promised to allow swift exit and reentry visas for Egyptian Jews who want to visit members of their families established in Israel. Although free travel between the two countries has been declared in principle, Egyptian policy as set by the foreign and interior ministries has been to hold back on practical applications pending Israeli concessions in the West Bank autonomy talks.
Another topic of discussion, it was learned, was the possible reconstruction of a rail line linking Cairo with Lod, the town near Tel Aviv where Israel's Ben Gurion Airport lies.
A second economic issue discussed by the two leaders was the sale of Sinai oil to Israel once Egypt resumes sovereignty over the fields as Israel pulls out. Egyptian sources said Sadat stuck by the Egyptian position that Israel can buy Egyptian oil like any customer, but without preferential prices or access.
To observers who remember the high-voltage effect of Sadat's trip to Jerusalem and Begin's arrival on Christmas Day, 1977 at Ismailia, these seemed mundane subject. Even the announcement that Sadat plans to sail up the Mediterranean coast to Haifa next month contained little of the drama inspired by the earlier trips.
Israeli journalists who accompanied Begin to Alexandria shopped for fresh mangoes and souvenirs, but excited interviewing of their Egyptian colleagues no longer seemed to interest them as it had on past visits.
One Egyptian store clerk asked an Israeli woman why some Jews wear yarmulkes, but in general the awe at seeing Israelis walking Egyptian streets had disappeared since the first Israelis arrived in Cairo for the Mena House peace negotiations in December, 1977.
In some ways, it even seemed natural when an Egyptian band played the Israeli national anthem without a hitch for Begin's arrival at Alexandria and, only moments later, an old Moslem sheik climbed to the top of a minaret and began chanting: "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great." CAPTION: Picture, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Alexandria, Egypt, Tuesday. AP