JERUSALEM, NOV. 18 -- The flight from the Abu Suwayr airfield to Ben-Gurion airport took less than 40 minutes, Anwar Sadat would recall in his autobiography. And yet the gap his presidential jet crossed that chilly November night was four wars wide and filled with suspicion, bitterness and hatred.
In one bold stroke, the Egyptian leader vaulted the abyss and changed forever the political, diplomatic and psychological landscape of the Middle East. Within 16 months of his epic journey to Jerusalem, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, urged on by a determined Jimmy Carter, concluded a treaty that officially ended a 31-year state of war and gave the Jewish state the security that peace and diplomatic recognition from its largest neighbor and former enemy could bestow.
"It was the turning point," recalled former foreign minister Abba Eban. After three decades of total isolation from its Arab neighbors, he said, "Israel suddenly underwent a total transformation. At last the windows were opened and the air came rushing in."
Thursday is the 10th anniversary of the Sadat visit, one of those rare moments in history when time stood still. Yet it will be marked largely with ambivalence and a sense of disappointment in both capitals.
Egypt, overpopulated, underdeveloped and broke, has other things on its mind. There will be no celebration in Cairo, many of whose people quickly soured on Sadat and his dream and greeted his 1981 assassination with cold indifference.
Following last week's Arab League summit in Amman, Jordan, seven Arab states have restored the diplomatic relations with Egypt that they severed when the 1979 peace treaty was signed; Egyptian officials appear in no mood to jeopardize these gains by calling attention to their ties with Israel.
The mood in Jerusalem is more nostalgic but also bittersweet. Like Eban, many Israelis look upon the Sadat visit as a magic moment, yet wonder how it happened that all the good will and hopes it embodied seem to have dissipated. In a series of peace symposiums and other events marking the anniversary this week, there has been a measure of despair, an unspoken but lingering fear that the elusive peace process, which seemed alive and well when Anwar Sadat electrified this nation, is not just dormant but dead.
Two stark facts about the peace between Israel and Egypt loom above all others, analysts say: that despite tensions and times of doubt -- Sadat's death and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon were two such moments -- it has held for nearly a decade; and that it remains a separate peace, one that no other Arab state has been willing or able to join.
"The Egyptians always believed that by reaching peace with us they would establish a bridge for a comprehensive peace with the other Arab countries," said Avraham Tamir, director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who, as an Army general, headed Israel's military delegation to the Camp David talks.
"The peace is solid but I ask myself what kind of future we might face if we remain in the status quo. We have to admit, the situation has got the potential for deterioration," he said.
Doves like Tamir contend the time is ripe for movement. The main Arab states say they are no longer looking to drive the Israelis into the sea. From this view, the Persian Gulf war has put the Arab-Israeli dispute into its proper perspective as a secondary conflict that needs to be put aside and resolved. Arab moderates such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein are said to be in a strong position to push into line recalcitrant actors such as Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
But the doves complain that Israel's divided coalition government is too weak to move and is squandering an opportunity that may not come again. Its refusal to endorse the idea of an international peace conference, which Hussein, Mubarak and President Reagan all support, symbolizes its paralysis, they contend. They also chide the Reagan administration for Washington's wariness and inaction, a marked contrast to the aggressive optimism of the Carter years.
"There is a peace orbiting around the Middle East waiting for a leader to steer it the right way," said Ezer Weizman, then Begin's hawkish defense minister, now a spokesman for the dovish left.
Others contend it is conditions, not leaders, that are the intractable core of the problem. Sadat came to Jerusalem knowing that the basic formula he espoused -- a peace accord in return for all the Egyptian lands Israel had captured in 1967 -- was acceptable to Begin and the vast majority of Israelis. The Sinai Peninsula was a strategic asset to Israel but not an integral part of its territory or heritage. It could be returned for the right price -- a genuine peace.
But the remaining occupied lands -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem -- are another matter. Virtually all Israelis believe Jerusalem should remain united under their sovereignty. Polls indicate that 60 percent or more feel the same way about the West Bank. Few would risk returning to Israel's precarious 1967 borders.
Although Israel today recalls Sadat's visit as the bold stroke it was longing for at the time, Weizman recalled, Israelis did not trust the Egyptian leader's motives or intentions.
Even after Israel realized Sadat was not fooling, it took months of protracted negotiations, including Carter's repeated personal intervention, to forge a deal. The main sticking point was the fate of the Palestinians, which was left ambiguous in a final accord that called for a self-governing authority to be established in the occupied territories and a five-year transition period while the "final status" of the area was to be negotiated.
In the end, according to Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a senior Begin aide and later Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, each side willfully misconstrued what the other had agreed to. Sadat believed the transitional period was to lead to a Palestinian state perhaps confederated loosely with Jordan. Begin insisted that political "autonomy" was the final goal -- Israel would govern the land and the Jews living there, while the Palestinians could govern themselves.
Each side has its ledger of betrayals and disappointments. Sadat angrily suspended the autonomy talks in May 1980 citing Israeli intransigence, and they have never been resumed. He was furious when Begin ordered the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor only three days after their 1981 summit meeting.
Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's successor, reacted similarly to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which took place just weeks after the return of the Sinai was completed. The invasion seemed to support those Arab critics who had warned that by making a separate peace, Egypt was freeing Israel to wage war on other fronts with impunity.
For their part, the Israelis were deeply angered when Mubarak, reacting to the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut by Christian militiamen allied with Israel, withdrew the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. He was only returned in September 1986. Mubarak's seemingly indifferent reaction to the slaying of seven Israeli tourists by a crazed Egyptian policeman on the beach at Ras Burka in the Sinai in October 1985 also appalled many here.
But most of all, they have been disappointed by what they see as Egypt's refusal to honor the provisions of the peace treaty calling for full economic and cultural relations and the removal of "barriers to the free movement of goods and people."
For the Israelis, the road to Cairo still goes only one way. About 35,000 Israeli tourists visited Egypt last year, according to Israeli figures, but only 500 Egyptians came here.
"I personally believe that the political peace will not be able to survive long without being complemented by a cultural dimension," says Shimon Shamir, a Tel Aviv University expert on Egyptian affairs.
The protracted, seemingly pointless border dispute over Taba, a small knob of Red Sea beachfront that boasts no strategic assets, symbolized the despair and mistrust that set in after Camp David. It took four years of haggling for the two nations to agree to submit the dispute to arbitration, where it now rests.
Israelis have mixed reactions to the restoration of Arab diplomatic relations with Egypt. The moves show that an Arab nation can make peace with Israel and not be drummed out of the Arab world forever, but at the same time, the Egyptians may be further encouraged to keep relations with Israel on a low and cold note.
But disappointment in Israel is always tempered by hope. Many officials here were initially saddened to learn that Cairo was sending no one to attend this week's commemorative events. At the last minute, Egypt surprised everyone by sending former prime minister Mustafa Khalil, earlier said to be hospitalized.
He was guest speaker today along with Eban and Weizman at a lunch sponsored by the International Center for Middle East Peace. It was a nostalgic occasion filled with warmth and hope.
Veteran Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer offered a more realistic appraisal in The Jerusalem Post.
"We have turned something that could have been a great revolution for the Arabs and Israelis into an appetizer that was not followed by a main dish, and that leaves a lot of sour taste and frustrated hopes," he told reporter Elaine Ruth Fletcher. "But one would take that any time over the pain of arguing points with guns."