Jerusalem — A new era in the millenia-long relationship between Egypt and Israel -- two neighboring states whose historical links were forged in Biblical times -- now is under way.
It began here and in Cairo Feb. 26 when the respective ambassadors of the two countries presented letters of credence to Presidents Yitzhak Navon and Anwar Sadat.
But the day's ceremonial serenity could not mask the critical problems that still pose obstacles to an uninhibited political friendship between Israel and Egypt and the consequent economic benefits.
The plight of Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip still haunts their new relationship. The Egyptian and Israeli governments disagree on the projected plan for autonomy or a self- governing authority in these sensitive areas.
[James Dorsey reports from The Hague that the United States is expected to make a concerted diplomatic effort to bridge the wide gap between Israeli and Egyptian proposals for Palestinian autonomy when ministerial talks start there Feb. 27.]
[With less than three months left before the deadline for agreement, set at Camp David, diplomats describe this ninth round of negotiations as "crucial."]
There also is an undercurrent of suspicion in Israel over Egypt's new weapons order from the United States, a package that by 1985 would furnish 40 F-16 jets and 250 M- 60 tanks among other items, at a cost of more than $4 billion.
Neither of these issues had any direct effect on the presentation of Egyptian Ambassador Saad Eddine Murtada's credentials to President Navon, however.
The diplomat arrived at the presidential residence, walked past an honor guard, and heard an Israeli police band play the Egyptian national anthem. President Navon awaited him inside, flanked by Foreign Ministry aides, including the new head of the Egyptian affairs department, Elyakim Rubinstein.
Ambassador Murtada spoke first, in Arabic, his address translated verbatim into Hebrew even though the Israeli President is fluent in Arabic, too. President Navon's Hebrew was rendered in Arabic by his Druze adviser on Arab affairs, Kamel Mansour.
Inevitably, allusions were made to some of the crucial aspects of Egyptian-Israeli relations.
The new Egyptian envoy expressed his government's abiding interest in the Palestinians, but stopped short at mentioning the controversial ideas of Palestinian statehood or self-determination.
He credited the peace agreements concluded with the active help of the US with having restored "peace and stability, and legitimate rights to all parties, first and foremost the right of the Palestinian people to a free and secure life."
Two of the three major Arabic newspapers that circulate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip condemned the establishment of normal relations between Egypt and Israel. Only the leading daily, Al Quds, adopted a reserved viewpoint.
However, the editorial opposition was dramatically evident in the general strike effective throughout the Arab sector of Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
In this spirit, the daily, El Fajr, contended that "it is the flag of Sadat, not the flag of Egypt, that flies in Israel." It contended that "the Egyptian masses are part of the Arab nation and join all Arabs in rejecting Sadat's policy."
As if in anticipation of this kind of polemic, Ambassador Murtada took up the argument in defense of his government's policy.
"At this time," he said, "when some clouds still darken the political situations in regions not far away, I would like to reiterate the position of Egypt, which derives from her Arab and Islamic responsibilities, as well as her commitment to the principles of the UN, nonalignment, and African unity."
The inauguration of diplomatic relations coincides with a debate between leading Israeli experts in national security over the implications of Egypt's arms procurement program.
Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, currently host to his Egyptian counterpart, Kamel Hassan Ali, takes the position that Egypt is at peace with Israel and therefore should not be suspected of malice intent. He contends that a substantial input of American weaponry is essential to compensate for the halt in deliveries from Egypt's former supplier, the Soviet Union.
Opponents of the arms package argue that the US is being misled into building up Egypt as a substitute for Iran in the American strategical concept of the Middle East. They maintain that Egyptian political stability depends too much on the "personality and longevity" of a single person -- President Sadat -- for such long-term logistical undertakings.
There also is a degree of pique over Egypt's ability to obtain planes and tanks on the basis of generous loans, while Israel's credit for military purchases was limited to about $400 million.
Nathaniel Harrison reports from Cairo:
Without fanfare, and with little obvious enthusiasm, Egypt now has officially begun diplomatic relations with Israel.
In a brief but correct ceremony Feb. 25, President Sadat accepted the credentials of Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a former aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who will be Israel's first emissary in an Arab land.
Because of differences over Palestinian autonomy, there seemed little to celebrate and much to protest. One demonstration saw the burning of a homemade Israeli flag and the hoisting of Palestinian colors. Other protests called for a boycott of Israel.