Egyptian officials are barely hiding their frustrations in dealing with Israel in the last agonizing days before the final Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
The sudden deluge of Israeli allegations of Egyptian violations of their three-year-old peace treaty, the request for a new written pledge from Cairo to respect the letter and spirit of the pact and the constant questioning of Egypt's good intentions have frayed official nerves here close to the breaking point.
"These are the longest 10 days of my life," remarked one Egyptian official involved in the negotiations with Israel.
After a debate among Egypt's policy makers, the decision was made to "cool it," one official said, and not to respond in kind to what Egyptians see as the Israeli campaign of casting Egypt in the role of a spoiler and questionable peace partner. In this way, they hope to avoid saying or doing anything to make matters worse.
But Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, in a brief emotional outburst during the weekend, reflected the general feeling here when he said Israel was violating the treaty far more than Egypt with its constant threats to delay pulling out and its refusal to accept arbitration over a border demarcation dispute.
The Israeli behavior has served, however, to raise the fundamental question of what progress really has been made in laying the basis for the "normalization" of relations between these two old adversaries that fought it out on the battlefield four times and are now striving to set an example of peaceful coexistence for other skeptical Arab nations to follow.
While Israel fears that the answer may be very little progress of substance and that Egypt is about to jilt it for the Arab world, the Egyptians contend great strides have been made in establishing normal state-to-state relations and that their peace partner is simply asking for too much, too fast.
"They are trying to force the pace and we see certain risks in that," one Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
"The relations we are having now with Israel are considerable," he said, ticking off some of the several dozen agreements, memos of understanding and other documents signed by the two governments in the past three years. "Egypt is doing all she can to assure Israel our relations are going smoothly. We want a normal, natural relationship between two neighboring countries."
The problem, as Egypt sees it, is that Israel is pressing for something more than a "normal relationship, one that would not only make it the most favored nation in Cairo but also close Egypt's door to the rest of the Arab world," he said. The Israelis "want a special rather than a normal relationship, but we are not giving Israel more than we give to any other country."
Egyptian officials say, for example, that Israel demanded special rights to bring chartered flights of tourists from Europe directly into the Sinai as well as to fly over that territory after April 25, outside designated air routes. It also asked, according to Egyptian officials, that Israeli pleasure boats be allowed to anchor anywhere along the Egyptian Sinai coast in the Gulf of Aqaba.
Cairo rejected the first request as a threat to its own vital tourism trade and the other two for "security reasons."
"Can I, as an Egyptian, go and anchor anywhere I want off the Israeli coast?" snapped one official.
Another Israeli demand that irked Egyptians was that the Palestinian autonomy talks be held in Jerusalem.
"We would be jeopardizing our position by going to Jerusalem for the autonomy talks," the Egyptian official said, referring to Egypt's claim that East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, remains part of the occupied West Bank. Israel's demand that the talks be held there has led to the suspension of the autonomy negotiations. Egypt has accepted a U.S. proposal to meet instead in Washington but Israel has not responded.
Most Western diplomatic observers here agree with the Egyptian view that Israel is seeking a "special" rather than a "normal" relationship and that this is expecting too much. But they also acknowledge that Israel may have reason to be apprehensive about the future.
"There has not been a whole lot of meat on the bones," one Western diplomat said, commenting on the two countries' efforts to build ties during the first three years of the peace treaty. "Normalization hasn't taken on a life of its own yet."
A basic problem, noted another diplomat, is the lack of a real constituency in Egypt with a direct economic or political interest in closer ties with Israel. "There is a peace constituency here but no real constituency for normalization," he said.
It is not for lack of jointly signed documents. The two governments have agreements in tourism, transportation, civil aviation, telecommunications, trade, cultural exchanges, sports and broadcasting.
In fact, negotiators on both sides are said to have been surprised, in reviewing the dossier recently, to discover so many joint accords, memos and minutes of meetings.
But the results and substance of the many agreements and accords are debatable. For example, while the border is open now, it is mostly foreign tourists who take advantage of the expanding air and land links.
There are four--and soon will be five--weekly scheduled flights each way between Tel Aviv and Cairo, including one jumbo jet. Special Egyptian and Israeli air services will link Tel Aviv to the Sinai after it is returned to Egypt.
Trucks and shortly buses, but still not passenger cars, can cross the border freely. A system of multiple entry visas has been arranged for frequent Israeli visitors, such as businessmen and drivers.
But the number of Egyptians taking advantage of this new access to a once-forbidden land is tiny--only 2,000 in the past two years, most of them in official delegations. In the same period, 50,000 Israelis visited Egypt.
Israel charges that Egyptian authorities are making it difficult for Egyptian citizens to obtain visas. But officials here say Egyptian fear being marked as "pro-Israeli" for going there and then having difficulties traveling to other Arab countries later.
They say second passports are being offered to Egyptians for travel to Israel to avoid such troubles.
Trade between the two countries has remained small, apart from Egyptian sale of oil to Israel, which accounted for all but $15 million of the $505 million total last year.
Under a year-by-year contract, Egypt sells Israel 40,000 barrels of oil a day. This assures Israel of a source but the price fluctuates with the world market; there is no peace discount.
One hindrance to significant growth in trade is that both countries export much of the same agricultural produce. But Egypt imports Israeli chickens, eggs, apples and bananas, plus newsprint and irrigation equipment.
Israel wants to increase trade by dealing directly with Egyptian state companies, but most refuse for fear of being put on the Arab boycott list and losing their markets in the Arab world. Even the state-controlled newspaper Al Ahram will not take advertisements for Israeli products for this reason.
"There is a framework for normalization but no apparatus to implement it," one Western diplomat said. "The return of the Sinai land might help the Egyptian attitude toward normalization. But normalization is not what the Egyptians do alone. It is also what Israel does. Israel cannot look at the process without looking at its own behavior. It takes nurturing the relationship on both sides."