Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. began walking the tortuous and well-worn path of Middle East negotiations here today, his steps hampered by continuing worry about the crisis in Poland.
Arriving in Egypt on his first overseas mission as secretary of state, Haig announced that part of his attention remained fixed on Poland. He told his Egyptian hosts it was "unfortunate" that his Cairo visit is "clouded once again by growing tensions for peace and stability in Europe."
Aboard Haig's plane, which left Washington more than an hour behind schedule last night because of a crisis committee meeting on Poland, the traditionally unnamed "senior official" added details for reporters.
The time required for the Soviets to intervene in Poland, and thus the potential warning period for the West, has been "drastically shortened" amid "worrisome political signals" from Moscow, he said.
The Polish Communist Party "has lost much of its influence" and Solidarity, the independent labor movement, "has become stronger," according to this analysis. It was suggested that the internal situation may be past the point that further moderation would be acceptable to Moscow.
All this has raised U.S. concern about internal suppression or external intervention in Poland. But there was said to be no confidence that Western concern or cautionary statements will have much effect. The Soviets, said the senior official grimly, " are going to do what they feel is necessary in their own vital interests."
In Egypt, Haig will attempt to start forming a "strategic consensus" regarding security in the Middle East and consideration of the next steps in the Camp David peace process.
Haig found his Egyptian hosts amenable to his concern about the "threats" from the Soviet Union, Libya and others, but he was also not surprised to find great sensitivity about what response to make.
A senior Egyptian diplomat, in a briefing for reporters in Haig's party, repeated President Anwar Sadat's longstanding invitation to the United States to use and improve the Egyptian air and naval facilities at Ras Banas across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. But he also repeated Egyptain determination not to sign a formal agreement with the United States about its use or permit a long-term U.S. presence because that might suggest it is a U.S. "base."
Equal sensitivity about appearances was evident in the Egyptian's rendition of his country's position on the "multinational" force being suggested to police a large and important area of the Sinai after the scheduled Israeli withdrawal in April 1982.
Israel has been pushing for U.S. combat troops to be the core of such a peacekeeping force, to give it maximum credibility and security to the Jewish state. In Washington, Haig has been saying that "a couple of thousand" American troops may be needed and that U.S. military participation "may be the only way to put such a force together."
Here in Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry official spoke of a peacekeeping group that is "only symbolic," with a maximum function "to verify and report."
Egypt's position is that the United States, Egypt and Israel should first try to get U.N. sponsorhip of the Sinai peacekeeping force, despite the likelihood of a Soviet veto in the Security Council. To this end, "intensive efforts" by Egypt and the United States in a variety of world capitals and at the United Nations began three days ago, reporters were told. c
If the U.N. sponsorship is not possible, organizers of a Sinai force should turn first to small and nonaligned nations, with U.S. troops only a last resort, in the Egyptian view.
"American participation with troops is a sensitive point, apt to create more problems than it solves," the Egyptian offical said. This is because an American peacekeeping presence in the Sinai might be "confused" in many minds with American military power for regional and strategic purposes, which is more controversial, the Egyptian said.
All this came as no surprise to Haig, who was aware of the Egyptain sensitivites even before he plunged into a round of meetings with Vice President Hosni Murbarak, Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali and other officials.
On Sunday Haig visits Sadat. Israel is the second stop on the nine-nation, eight-day tour.