Despite the prospect of resuming negotiations soon, the Egyptian government appears resigned to months of stagnation in the talks on Palestinian autonomy while President Carter is caught up in his reelection campaign.
Diplomats here say the sense of urgency attributed to the Washington meeting grows more from a desire to upstage European discussion of the Middle East at Venice than from any expectations in Washington, Jerusalem or Cairo that new negotiations will move closer to agreement soon.
The current flurry of diplomatic activity, Egyptian officials emphasize, is designed only to arrange a meeting in Washington to discuss the possibility of further meetings on the subject of autonomy itself. So far, even the date of these preparatory talks has not been set.
President Anwar Sadat recently told a visiting diplomat that in his judgement Carter cannot afford to make any new initiatives to break the talks deadlock during his election campaign. This assessment reflects the Egyptian view that the Carter administration must come forward with its own plan and force Israel to accept it if the autonomy talks are to progress.
Sadat and his aides, however, seem increasingly willing to be sympathetic to Carter's political needs.
Some Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials also see another reason for accepting delay. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, they say, is unlikely to budge from the tough stand he has taken on the West Bank and on Jewish settlement there, particularly in light of the recent violence in the occupied area. For that reason, they add, Egypt could come out ahead if it allowed the talks to drone on for a while in hopes that Begin's government will collapse and be replaced by a Labor Cabinet more amenable to comprise.
Despite the personal friendship between Sadat and begin, there are signs that the Egyptian leader is growing irritated with his Israeli counterpart's refusal to make a gesture on the settlements.
A recent diplomatic visitor to Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who is known for faithful reflections of Sadat's views, came away surprised at the vehemence of criticism directed at Israeli policies and Begin's leadership, particularly on the settlements.
Mubarak "was pounding on the table," the diplomat recalled.
The Cairo press, a less direct but just as faithful relfection of Sadat's vision of things, also has adopted a sharper tone toward Israel recently. Observers have concluded that the president let it be known he no longer is holding editors to his earlier orders for careful treatment of Begin and his government.
At the same time, Sadat has ordered the Egyptian press to tone down criticism of his Arab opponents, particularly Saudi Arabia. The president has expressed determination to renounce his previous goading of the Saudis -- though at times he still cannot resist. He strongly condemned the television movie "Death of a Princess" in what was interpreted as a bow toward the Saudis, who found its treatment of the execution of an adulterous Saudi couple offensive.
Some reports here say contacts have increased with the Saudis recently through unofficial enyoys from both sides and this has led to speculation that Sadat could be preparing a spectacular gesture designed to heal Saudi-Egyptian rfelations. One Asian diplomat said he was present when Mubarak took a telephone call from a member of the Saudi Royal family this week and Sadat's confidant, Anis Mansour, simultaneously floated a rumor in his magazine October that the Egyptian might be willing to travel to Jeddah for a reconciliation.
But Saudis and Egyptians alike deny any such trip is possible and dismiss suggestions that the continuing contacts signal any change in the estrangement that began when Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel.
In the meantime, Sadat is known to feel that the United States, Egypt and Israel must keep up an appearance of movement in the autonomy dispute even if hope is dim for any real progress.
Agreement is expected before long, consequently, on resumption of formal talks, suspended since May 8.
An impression in Egypt that the talks have fallen through for good could produce political trouble for Sadat, who has welded his home image to the Camp David process. The smell of failure would be particularly damaging now, when he has vowed to turn his attention to internal problems such as inflation largely on the basis that the peace battle has been won.
A prolonged appearence of failure also would make it difficult for Sadat to respond to his fellow Arabs, who accuse him of selling out Palestinians in return for separate peace with Israel. So far, that indeed is all he has. iWithout autonomy negotiations to point to, Sadat would have little left on the horizon to refute his Arab detractors.
The appearance of movement is becoming increasingly difficult to generate, however, because a growing list of promises have been followed by disappointment. Observers still remember for example, the ostensible sense of resolve after Sadat and Begin visited Washington for separate talks with Carter in April. The talk then was of "40 days and 40 nights" of "nonstop" negotiations to produce agreement before the May 26 target date set last year for setting up election for autonomous Palestinian administration of the West Bank and Gaza.
As it sutred out, it took two weeks for the talks to get started. When they did, they broke down after only a few days during which U.S. negotiator Sol Linowitz moved between the seaside hotel rooms of chief Israeli negotiator Yosef Burg and his Egyptian countepart, then-prime minister Mustafa Khalil.
This time none of the three sides is speaking of marathon talks, Egyptians even point out that the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, with its obligatory all-day fasting, begins in mid-July -- a likely reason for slow going until the U.S. political conventions promise still more delay.