Cairo — When he goes to southern Sinai this Thursday to see Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and to talk about the Lebanese crisis, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat will be on solid ground should he petition Mr. Begin to exercise restraint.
To date, Mr. Sadat has done everything an Israeli prime minister could ask of him.
He has again broken ranks with the Arab world to berate and blame Syrian President Hafez Assad for the bloodshed in Lebanon. He has hinted that if Israeli wishes to fight the Syrians it will not have to worry about the Egyptian Army intervening on the side of Damascus. He has publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the Camp David peace process.m
And now President Sadat has agreed to an emergency summit that will allow the prime minister to assume the stature of an international statesman-crisis manager -- no small asset in Mr. Begin's struggle to secure another term in the June 30 Israeli elections.
Having so obligingly accommodated the prime minister, Mr. Sadat may now feel he has every right to press Mr. Begin to keep his war planes on the ground and his Army at home and to allow more time for Arab and American diplomacy.
It is hardly surprising that it was the situation in Lebanon, and the chilling prospect of war between Syria and Israel, that prompted President Sadat to set aside his determination not to get involved in Israeli politics and to agree to see Mr. Begin just four weeks before the voting.
Although Egypt has signaled its neutrality in the event of war between Syria and Israel, Foreign Ministry officials readily concede that a Syrian-Israeli clash would leave Cairo in an agonizing dilemma.
Mr. Sadat and his regime could probably weather a short, swift "surgical" Israeli air strike against Syrian missiles in Lebanon. But his position at home would be more seriously imperiled if such a strike were to lead to war with Syria. Standing by while the much- touted Israeli war machine gobbled up yet more Arab territory might be an indignity President Sadat would have trouble justifying to his people and his Army -- to say nothing of those Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia that Egypt hopes will eventually join its peace initiative.
If Mr. Sadat, furthermore, were forced to make good on his intention to stay out of the action, he would be hard pressed to answer those at home and in the Arab camp who saym it is only because of the peace treaty with Egypt that Israel now feels bold enough to threaten Syria. Prime Minister Begin himself has alluded to the salutary effects of the agreement.
"If we did not have the treaty with Egypt we would have already mobilized the reserves both in the north and in the south because of the dispute with Syria," Mr. Begin said last week.
Should President Sadat succeed in inducing Mr. Begin's restraint, however, he will be better able to press his point on a cynical, hostile Arab world that his decision to deal peacefully with Israel can yield tangible benefits for the entire region. And, at the very least, the fact that the meeting is imminent may ensure that a major confrontation between Syria and Israel will not erupt before American negotiator Philip Habib returns to the Middle East later this week.