For the second time in a month, Israel and Egypt have bypassed U.S. leadership and have come together on their own to forge a common policy on the direction and pace of Middle East peace negotiations.
First, the two former enemies both rejected an American attempt to mention Palestinian rights in a U.N. resolution and now they appear to be setting their own pace in the Palestinian autonomy talks.
The independent policy-making by President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin dramatizes the extraordinary change in climate that has taken place since Sadat made his historic trip to Jerusalem in November, 1977, and the two nations signed a peace treaty last March.
The United States, which Sadat often has said holds 99 percent of the cards in the Middle East, remains an essential partner in the process set up at Camp David and in the treaty. But events in the last month show that Sadat and Begin themselves, having drawn together in eight face-to-face meetings, are increasingly dealing their own hands.
The evolution represents a clear political victory for Begin, whose government frequently has expressed fears that the United States would take Egypt's side as the negotiations progressed and try to pressure Israel into concessions on West Bank autonomy and relations with Palestinians.
This is all the more true because most of the harmony in Egyptian-Israeli stands on the negotiations grows from Sadat's repeated willingness to put Egypt's concept of what Palestinian autonomy means on the back burner in favor of progress on bilateral relations with Israel.
The first dramatic sign of how the two former enemies were learning to work together came a month ago when Sadat added his voice to Begin's in condemning the American attempt to draw Palestinians into the talks by introducing a new U.N. resolution including mention of Palestinian rights.
With Israel already vociferously protesting the U.S. proposal, Sadat's negative reaction doomed the idea and Israeli officials quickly pointed out that for the first time Jerusalem and Cairo had together prevailed over Washington.
Now, as special U.S. envoy Robert Strauss flew home today from a five-day trip to Egypt and Israel, it was apparent that Sadat and Begin are once again imposing their own independently arrived at ideas on the United States.
The two leaders, during their Haifa summit Sept. 4-6, reached a common view that the autonomy talks should remain strictly within the narrow format of the Camp David accords and that their ministerial negotiating teams should be relieved of pressure to produce swift success.
The emphasis instead has shifted to lower-level working groups that are being asked to meet more frequently to clear out the legal underbrush and reduce points of disagreement to the four major ones requiring political decisions from Begin and Sadat.
Strauss, Begin and Sadat all denied this week that this means a slowdown in the talks. But it nevertheless was obvious that the result will be to postpone the inevitable crisis over major issues such as East Jerusalem and the extent of Palestinian autonomy.
Some members of Israel's working committee have complained privately that they are unwilling to take it upon themselves to set policy on such vital disputes without clear political direction from Begin's Cabinet. Their Egyptian counterparts also have said they need specific instructions from above, with one comparing their work so far to "marching in place."
The new approach seems to ignore the assertion of at least some U.S. policy makers that a bold stroke such as last month's abortive resolution is necessary to get cooperation from the Palestinians, who until now have shunned the talks completely.
In briefing reporters, Strauss underlined the significance of demonstrating to Sadat's Arab foes the smooth performance so far of Israeli and Egyptian compliance with bilateral provisions of the treaty, particularly Israeli pullouts in the Sinai Peninsula. Evidence of such benefits to Egypt, Strauss said, will create a climate in which Palestinians and their Arab backers will find it more difficult to sustain their opposition to the peace process.
Washington's final policy on these matters apparently has not been fully defined, however, and Strauss may have to take into account the possibility of different priorities from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's foreign policy adviser.
Some American diplomats in Arab countries whose leaders oppose the Camp David process are known to be warning Washington that it would harm U.S. interests in the Middle East in the long run to ignore the concerns of these countries.
Particularly delicate is the apparent connection being made in Saudi Arabia between progress toward meeting Palestinian demands and guarantees of high oil production rates to ease the tight energy market.
Carter and Strauss have declared that the Saudis have not linked their oil production levels with the U.S. role in the autonomy talks. Privately, however, U.S. diplomats believe the link is clear even though, in keeping with the traditional Saudi sense of Bedouin tact, is has gone unspoken.
The Saudi rulers let it be known last July, when they raised production at Carter's request by a million barrels a day to 9.5 million a day, that the increase would be reviewed this fall. With the same royal family setting oil policy and Saudi diplomatic policy, diplomats say, a link between the two is almost inevitible.
Sadat had told Strauss that he no longer feels worried about Saudi or other Arab opposition to his peace policies gecause, in his view, the "rejectionist" alliance ranged against him has lost its mementum. The Egyptian leader is known to have told Strauss during their talks in Cairo last Sunday that any danger to the United States -- such as pressure on oil supplies -- would have to be faced by Washington and not Egypt, which has its own oil wells.
A constant source of worry these days to Israeli leaders is the prospect of another energy crisis in the United States -- with its accompanying long lines at gasoline stations - coinciding with the moment Egypt and Israel finally come face to face with the crucial issues of Palestinian autonomy.
Since Israel has had pending in the United States requests for military and financial aid reportedly totaling $3.4 billion, it is not difficult for most Israelis to imagine what kind of pressure would be applied on Begin to make concessions in the autonomy negotiations.