Cairo — Egyptians are savoring what they consider one of the sweetest diplomatic fruits of President Sadat's peace efforts: the sight of one West European government after another mobilizing on behalf of the Palestinians.
It's an especially gratifying triumph for Egypt since it comes at a time when American election politics appear to prevent President Carter from acting decisively in Middle East diplomacy.
In recent weeks, senior foreign ministry officials from Britain, West Germany , and the Netherlands have joined French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in unequivocal endorsements of Palestinian self-determination. And the Austrian government, in formally recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization, has gone a step further.
"Sadat has thrown a stone into a stagnant pool and suddenly everything has changed," says one beaming foreign ministry official here.
For Egypt, President Sadat's willingness to break ranks with the Arabs and to recognize Israel, in return for expected Israeli concessions to the Palestinians , has earned the respect and approbation of much of the Western world. Israel, Egyptians believe, in failing to honor Mr. Sadat's gesture in kind, is more isolated and defensive about itself than ever before. And the Sadat initiative, they say, has at last inspired the European Community (EC) to take the Palestinian cause seriously.
Precisely how the much-discussed European initiative will take shape is still not clear. There have been reports lately of the Europeans devising a United Nations resolution specifically citing the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and of the EC sponsoring an Arab-Israeli forum.
But Egyptian officials are adamant on one point: Whatever develops, the Camp David agreements must not be overlooked, deemphasized, or tampered with; the principles of Camp David, as well as the mechanics for implementing Palestinian autonomy, must not be abandoned.
Egypt doesn't want to suffer a chorus of self-righteous "I told you so's" from hardline Arab governments. It does not want it to appear that President Sadat had taken a false step in opening the dialogue with Israel.
Whatever comes from the EC, says a Foreign Ministry official, "it must be an addition to, and not a substitute for, Camp David. It should not appear as a substitute for what Egypt has already done. No one should be able to say Egypt has failed."
The nascent European initiative may nevertheless provide the Egyptians with a means of salvaging their own efforst on behalf of the Palestinians once, as now seems inevitable, autonomy negotiations involving Egypt, Israel, and the United States reach their May 26 deadline inconclusively.
On March 25 the three sides will meet in Alexandria in still another attempt to determine what autonomy will mean for the 1.1 million Palestinians living on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip.
The talks, as outlined in Camp David, have gone nowhere in the past 10 months. Egypt is still holding out for an autonomous government that would grant the Palestinians a wide range of powers and responsibilities. Israel insists that Palestinian self-rule would be restricted to routine administrative matters.
In spite of the ominous deadlock, Egyptian officials do not publicly acknowledge that they have lost hope in the negotiations. They have been cautious and careful in expressing public support for the new European moves, saying they intend to bargain energetically and conscientiously within the Camp David framework until the last minute.
President Sadat continues to issue bland professions of optimism, saying, in essence, that he can't believe Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin will persist in attitudes and actions that jeopardize efforts to reach an overall settlement.
But it's clear that he is also growing uneasy. In his latest public comments he has accused Israel of being responsible for the current impasse and has twice warned that "a new situation" would emerge if there is no breakthrough by May 26 -- a date he says the Israelis must take seriously.
Never a man for details, Mr. Sadat has meticulously avoided comment on Israel's decision to allow Jews to settle in parts of the West Bank Arab town of Hebron and to expropriate large chunks of Arab land in east Jerusalem. He has said nothing about the appointment of Yitzhak Shamir, reportedly a hardliner about Israel's right to settle Jews in the West Bank, as Israeli foreign minister.
But these are nonetheless the ingredients of the impasse and they figure prominently in the remarks of foreign ministry executives. Many of them, though , were unmoved by Mr. Shamir's appointment, noting that Egypt has long been getting the message that Mr. Begin is not about change his policy as the negotiating deadline looms.
"For us, it's the settlement policy itself that is the provocation, not the foreign minister," says one official.
It is in this sort of atmosphere that alternatives are being explored and officials agree that one of them is through the EC. In the Egyptian view, President Carter, caught in election-year pressures, has tossed the ball to the Europeans.
Initially, Egypt took President Carter's about-face on the recent Security Council vote very much in stride. It was the vote itself, officials argued, in which the US sided with the majority in condemning Jewish settlements in occupied Arab land, that was significant. They attributed Mr. Carter's subsequent disavowal to internal political pressures.
However, a more authentic reaction may be that of Anis Mansour, editor of October, an influential news magazine, and a close friend and confidante of President Sadat. In last week's issue, Mr. Mansour, citing the UN flip-flop, accused President Carter of being weak, ineffectual, and indecisive.
It was an unprecedentedly strong attack on Mr. Carter, who has heretofore been lavishly praised here. Political observers speculated that it was unlikely the article could have appeared without President Sadat's foreknowledge, if not his consent.