Egypt tonight called the Israeli decision effectively to annex the Golan Heights of Syria "a direct blow" to the Middle East peace process and a "clear violation" of the American-sponsored Camp David accords.
In a statement issued by President Hosni Mubarak's office, the Egyptian government said the action was "contradictory to all international agreements and documents and a challenge to international public opinion."
It called on "all peace-loving forces in Israel and the world to reject" the move but gave no indication what measures, if any, Egypt planned to take in response.
In Damascus, the Syrian government issued a statement after an emergency Cabinet meeting saying the Israeli decision "cancels the cease-fire between Syria and Israel" signed after the 1973 Middle East war, "means the annexation of Syrian territories and launches a war against Syria," United Press International reported.
"Syria reserves the right to carry out suitable measures against this gross and flagrant violation of the United Nations covenant," the statement said.
Syria also called for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council "as a first step" to counter the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
Hinting at the possibility of a direct confrontation between Syria and Israel, Syrian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mustapha Talas was quoted as saying tersely to reporters in Damascus, "Between us and Israel, the edge of the sword."
Special correspondent Michael J. Berlin reported from the United Nations that the Syrian request that the Security Council set a one-week deadline for Israel to rescind its decision on the Golan Heights will be taken up at a regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
The Israeli action has clearly caught the Egyptians by surprise, and it may take several days for the government to decide what line of action to follow.
The takeover of the Golan Heights by Israel constitutes the first serious foreign policy challenge to the 10-week-old Mubarak government. It could upset Mubarak's plans for reconciliation with Arab countries as well as spoil the honeymoon he is enjoying with opposition parties.
Observers here doubted that Mubarak would take any steps that might seriously endanger the final withdrawal of Israeli forces from its occupied territory in the Sinai next April.
The withdrawal has top national priority, and a failure by Mubarak to accomplish it could have even more serious consequences for him than failing to respond strongly enough to the Israeli challenge.
Mubarak is trapped in the same dilemma as the late president Anwar Sadat about how to deal with Israeli actions that are provocative to the Arab world while Egypt proceeds with the Camp David peace process begun in September 1979..
In an initial show of displeasure, Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali called in the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to discuss the issue. An Egyptian technical team meeting with Israeli experts in Tel Aviv on Palestinian autonomy broke off the talks pending instructions from Cairo.
Later U.S. Ambassador Alfred Atherton Jr. said he had relayed to Foreign Minister Ali the official U.S. position which reportedly was that any unilateral action tending to change the character of the occupied territories was of "grave concern to the American government and would constitute a violation of U.N. Resolution 242."
Israeli Ambassador Moshe Sasson said he had "listened very carefully" to the Egyptian viewpoint regarding the Israeli action and would transmit it to his government. But he rejected the Egyptian contention that the Israeli takeover of the Golan Heights was a threat to the peace process, saying it was Syria which had been fighting most steps toward the resolution of the Middle East conflict.
The surprising Israeli decision is certain to cause trouble for Egypt's new policy of seeking reconciliation with the rest of the Arab world following Sadat's assassination here in early October.
If Mubarak decides to go on with the Palestinian autonomy talks he is likely to open himself to Arab criticism, which so far he has avoided.
On the other hand, if he takes some retaliatory action, he risks jeopardizing the return of Israeli-occupied territory in the Sinai.
Many Egyptians, as well as Western diplomats here, view the Israelis as having long sought to provoke the Egyptian government, even under Sadat, into doing something that would serve as a pretext for Israel to get out of the final withdrawal from the Sinai.
For this reason, Mubarak, like Sadat before him, has gone out of his way to see to it that Egypt sticks to the letter and the spirit of the Camp David accords.