Cairo — Egyptian and US diplomats are increasingly pinning hopes for Mideast negotiating progress on a man they have long associated with stalemate - Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
As agriculture minister until last spring's Israeli elections, Mr. Sharon helped spearhead Israel's settlement drive on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan.
''He's not the kind of man we would ordinarily associate with hopes for any breakthrough,'' commented one Egyptian source.
But both US and Egyptian officials, interviewed ahead of resumed ministerial-level talks on Palestinian autonomy Nov. 11, have come to assess Mr. Sharon differently.
They appear to welcome, if only as a symbol, his move to put the Israeli occupation apparatus under at least nominal civilian control. More importantly, these officials say, Mr. Sharon has said privately he has drawn up a basket of Israeli measures designed to ease life for the inhabitants of the occupied territories - a ''Sharon plan'' Egypt has been seeking for the area since the start of autonomy talks.
One Egyptian negotiator, although saying there is no indication the Sharon package would be as extensive as Egypt wants, remarked: ''The important thing is that Sharon seems at least ready to try new ideas, whatever they are, and to be capable of boldness.''
This is a quality that, in the privately expressed view of both US and Egyptian diplomats, the rest of the Israeli negotiating team sorely lacks. They say this is especially true since the resignations of late Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.
Mr. Sharon is also seen as sharing with at least Mr. Weizman a large amount of personal political ambition. Some of the officials interviewed said they held out hope that Mr. Sharon might even allow boldness to dent personal objections to Israeli concessions on the Palestinian question.
But Egyptian negotiators, in particular, are quick to stress what they see as limits to what Mr. Sharon is likely to provide. At the last round of autonomy talks, in Israel shortly before the Sadat assassination, Mr. Sharon is said to have moved to take a more active role, only to be rebuffed by chief Israeli negotiator Yosef Burg.
And Mr. Sharon is still viewed here fundamentally as a ''hawk.'' A military commander by training, he has always argued forthrightly that Israel has unassailable biblical and defense reasons for keeping a firm hold on the West Bank and Gaza under any eventual agreement. He rues the fact that Palestinian guerrillas didn't win their civil war with Jordan in 1970. A perfect Palestinian state already exists in the Mideast, he has suggested, and it is Jordan.
''Take it for granted,'' he told the Monitor in an interview at the start of the autonomy-negotiation process, ''about our military presence and settlements (on the West Bank) - that will be forever.''
In the Egyptian view, this kind of position would prejudge debate on eventual ''sovereignty'' over the area - under the Camp David accords, a question meant to be decided after a transition period - and thus make an autonomy accord impossible.
US officials are careful to stress that any eventual agreement must entail give by both sides. But they have long made it clear privately that they feel issues like West Bank settlements require the major softening of Israel. So far, the US has also found itself closer to Egypt than to Israel on the general question of just how extensive Palestinian ''autonomy'' should be.
And both they and the Egyptians, previously skeptical on chances that a ''hard-liner'' like Mr. Sharon could contribute much to progress in the negotiations, now feel he is the best hope for movement from the Israeli side.