Departing Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal called it the "last bout."
Actually the final debate with his Israeli counterpart yesterday was a pretty civilized affair conducted over quiche and cocktails at a little clubhouse in Foggy Bottom.
Amiably addressing the Arab diplomat by his first name, Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne withheld final farewells. "Maybe you will be the next ambassador to Israel. Who knows?" That development is unlikely, however, because Ghorbal is retiring from diplomatic service.
In the Middle East, there is a "cold peace" between Israel and Egypt. Israelis complain to the United States about what they see as thinly veiled anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, and since then Cairo has devoted its energies to returning to the Arab fold from which it was brusquely ejected after the Camp David peace agreement in 1978.
Despite the ups and downs back home in the relationship between the two countries, the joint appearances of Ghorbal and a succession of Israeli diplomats serving here during the past six years have been one of Washington's enduring spectacles. They have appeared together at university conferences, dinners, parties and, a few weeks ago, at a Washington-area synagogue.
For the Israelis, the sessions have provided an opportunity for them to show that they can talk to their Arab neighbors. For the Egyptians, the appeal has been the opportunity they have provided for speaking to Americans, for laying out their positions for comparison with the Israelis'.
In their final parry and thrust at the luncheon yesterday, which was put on by the Overseas Writers club, there was scarcely agreement on any issue. Ghorbal, upbeat about possibilities in the Middle East, kept pointing to silver linings -- a softening on some issues by the new Israeli government, the alliances forming among moderate Arab states. Rosenne, however, kept directing his attention to the clouds on the horizon.
Ghorbal: "I personally see a window of opportunity [for Middle East peace initiatives] . . . . I tell my Israeli colleagues, make it easy and simple for everyone. Please."
Rosenne: "Had the Arab states really been interested in the solution of the Palestinian problem, they would have accepted Camp David . . . . We acted in good faith."
Ghorbal: "There are opportunities for supporting or helping the Reagan Middle East peace initiative . . . ."
Rosenne: "What we lack is not solutions but a partner to negotiations." He said Israel's new "national unity" government favored negotiations without preconditions but was still studying Reagan's two-year-old peace plan.
The soft-spoken Ghorbal, 59, who has served for 10 years in Washington, mused recently in an interview about the first of those meetings in late 1977 after years of encounters that became known as "the Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic tango."
At cocktail parties or elsewhere they happened to chance upon one another, one ambassador would enter one door, the other would come in another. Noses in the air, they would glide smoothly through the crowd with no flicker of recognition passing between them.
That all changed after the late Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem.
"It was the hottest show in town that you get the Egyptian and the Israeli ambassador together on one platform or on one screen," Ghorbal recalled in the interview. He added that later it became "deja vu."
Yesterday, Ghorbal welcomed the renewed talks between Israel and Lebanon on Israeli troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon but, he said, the fate of Palestinians cannot wait.
"We are not talking about one event following the other," he said. "We are talking about making use of this window of opportunity across the board.
"In the Middle East, problems do not stand still. They move forward or slide back into explosions. I believe, really, we do not have much time. A year."