Sadat's moment of truth

This year marks the tenth in President Sadat's tenure of power, a long time for the leader of a country which is changing so rapidly and is especially vulnerable to the disruptive forces of the Middle East.

There is not, however, any present indication that his power is threatened. He is now and is likely to remain popular with the masses and at least accepted by the elite, as long as he is able to maintain military security, economic stability with some gradual improvement, and an honorable Egyptian image.

Sadat has not sought, indeed does not seek, the pro-Arab charisma Nasser enjoyed, but he is in many ways more innovative and more wily. His ultimate success or failure depends, however, more on others than on himself -- on the US and other Western nations for the massive economic and military aid which the Arab oil producers are no longer supplying, and on Israel for sufficient progress in the Palestinian autonomy negotiations to demonstrate that Camp David served wider Arab, and not purely Egyptian, interests.

The first prerequisite is so far being met. Substantial US government aid, coupled with some Western private investment, is supplying the necessary stimulus to the Egyptian economy. The question is whether, in the current mood of Western austerity, this support can be maintained at high levels, and whether it will be sufficient over time to show the millions of Egyptians that their lot is improving and Sadat's bold gambles are paying off.

The second prerequisite for his success, Israeli flexibility in the autonomy negotiations, is conspicuous by its absence. I did not find a single Egyptian who expected these negotiations would produce results in any way attractive to West Bank Palestinians by May 26, the deadline laid down by the participants. What therefore is likely to happen after that date?

Sadat is so unpredictable -- indeed this is one of the secrets of his success -- that few are prepared to be positive about what course he will take. One school of thought argues that he has invested so much in Camp David that he will go along with a US request to give the negotiations still more time -- at least until January when the American President will be free of electoral pressures.

Other observers speculate that, if confronted by a stalemate at the end of May, Sadat will call for another summit meeting to seek another breakthrough. Most friends of America in the region contend that it would be extremely unwise for President Carter to hold such a meeting this year. They argue that the meeting would be certain to fail -- with adverse effects on both Carter's and Sadat's political fortunes -- unless Carter should be willing to exercise on Israel the kind of pressure which the recent misadventure at the UN strongly suggests he would not at this time. So a summit would more probably produce fiasco than breakthrough. Forthcoming separate meetings of Carter with Sadat and Begin, being less spectacular, will be less hazardous, but almost certainly equally unproductive.

Another school of thought predicts that, if the autonomy negotiations remain bogged down on May 26, Sadat will wash his hands of them. While continuing the implementation of that part of Camp DAvid relating to Israeil- Egypt relations, he will, these observers suggest, announce that, despite his best efforts and due to Israeli obstinacy, the procedures laid down at Camp David for establishing Palestinian autonomy have failed and must be abandoned.

Sadat will then propose that this question be returned to the UN Security Council or General Assembly, where, he would argue, the full weight of world opinion might eventually prove more decisive with Israel than the efforts of Egypt and the US alone.

Whether or not this scenario would serve any other purpose, it would enable Sadat to disengage from an embarrassing situation and to begin to narrow the distance between himself and the other Arab states. The US, a senior Egyptian official argued, should welcome this course, since it can hardly wish to have bothm its closest allies in the region (Israel and Egypt) isolated from all the rest of it.

The same official maintained that there is no incompatibility between adhering strictly to the Israel-Egypt part of Camp David, and concurrently denouncing Israel's failure to carry out the Palestinian part. The US, he pointed out, maintains normal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union while not shrinking from public confrontation with it whenever necessary.

Whether any of these speculations represents Sadat's real thinking no one can say. Certainly he will be reluctant to veer too sharply from a course which he himself initiated and which has brought him into such close association with the United States.

On the other hand, he would not wish, any more than any other politician, to seem to be made a fool of, to be strung along indefinitely in negotiations the other side may, for good or bad reasons of its own, never intend to allow to succeed.

In any case, whether in May or in January, Sadat, and with him the United States, will approach another moment of truth, the response to which may have far more effect on the security of the Middle East and of Western oil supplies than either suspected Soviet designs or American rapid deployment forces.

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