Israel's relations with Egypt, driven by events in Lebanon to their lowest point since the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, are showing further signs of estrangement.
After months of preoccupation with the war in Lebanon, the Israeli press and government have begun to pay more attention to relations with Egypt, in the process expressing irritation with the situation, especially the continued absence from Israel of Egyptian Ambassador Saad Mortada.
The Israeli Cabinet reportedly is to discuss Israeli-Egyptian relations at a meeting soon, a clear indication of the importance the government attaches to the matter.
Mortada was recalled to Cairo for "consultations" after the massacre of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut last month. The move was seen here as an Egyptian protest of the massacre, but Israeli officials sought in public to downgrade its significance in hopes of not making relations any worse.
Now, however, there are indications of impatience with Mortada's continued absence and unconfirmed reports that Israel is considering some diplomatic steps of its own in response. The conservative newspaper Yediot Aharonot, a strong supporter of the government, urged this week that the Israeli ambassador in Cairo be recalled in retaliation, a step that officials consider unlikely.
It is not just the highly visible international issues like the Camp David autonomy talks that have been affected by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The whole process of "normalization," which has never lived up to initial Israeli expectations at the time of the peace treaty, has ground to a halt.
The embassies in the two countries continue to function and routine day-to-day business is still transacted. But beyond that, numerous meetings, official visits and other high-level contacts have been "postponed" and trade between the countries has been reduced, according to Israeli officials.
"We had not reached the state of normalization, and now things are going backwards," one official said.
Israeli officials concede that until there are concrete signs of progress toward an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, this country's relations with the only Arab nation with which it has signed a peace treaty are likely to remain in "the deep freeze."
This was illustrated by the reaction today to reports that Egypt wants to resume the negotiations over a disputed strip of land south of Eilat on the border with the Sinai, which Israel returned to Egypt in April under the terms of the peace treaty.
The final status of the land, which includes a luxury hotel being built by Israelis that is to be opened next month, was to be resolved after the return of the Sinai by negotiations or by arbitration if necessary.
Asked today about these reports, Israeli officials replied they saw little prospect to revive talks on one subject when all other aspects of relations between the two countries are frozen. "We would like to resume all the talks," including the autonomy talks, one official said.
While there has been in recent days more of a tendency by the press to complain about this state of affairs, the government appears reluctant to risk further deterioration by making a major issue of it. The fragility of Egyptian-Israeli ties, officials said, imposes a need for caution in dealing with the strains that grew out of the invasion of Lebanon.
Egypt has made clear that it will not change its posture until there is a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon.
Shimon Shamir, who five months ago was named director of the Israel Academic Center in Cairo, warned in a recent article in the independent newspaper Haaretz that "the war in Lebanon, since the days of Tyre and Sidon until the days of Sabra and Shatila, has been one long celebration for all of the foes of Sadat's peace initiative."
Because of the war, Shamir said, much of the effort by both Israelis and Egyptians to foster better relations over the last five years has "gone down the drain" and left Egyptian supporters of the peace process more isolated than ever.
"In the first days of the war, after one of the bombings of Beirut," he recalled, "an Egyptian judge, a friend of many Israelis, called me and said in a voice choked with tears: 'You have sacrificed not only them but also us, your friends in Egypt. I can no longer show my face to those who disagreed with me, for now it turns out that they were right.' "