President Anwar Sadat warns ominously of a "new situation" if there is no Palestinian autonomy accord by May 26. But Cairo officials suggest only outright failure of President Carter's latest summit initiative will drive the Egyptian leader to act.
A concerned Washington is taking no chances.A summit failure would jeopardize one of the only undisputed diplomatic triumphs of a Carter administration now battling for re-election.
US diplomats have been canvassing Egyptian officials to gauge what Israeli concessions Mr. Sadat is expecting from Mr. Carter's April summit talks. The Americans also are tyring to assess how, when, or whether the Egyptian leader might act if disappointed by the summit outcome.
Mosst officials and political analysts here say that although Mr. Sadat has been describing the May 26 "target date" for an autonomy accord as a "deadline," he will not insist on final agreement by then.
"We know President Carter can't get Mr. Begin to agree on all the issues at the summit," a ranking Egyptian negotiator told the Monitor.
Political analysts note that President Sadat's increasingly obvious impatience at the lack of progress in the autonomy talks has been directed at Israel, not Washington. Receiving an honorary degree from an American university here March 30, Mr. Sadat took the opportunity to lavish praise on the Carter administration, adding:
"We do not exaggerate when we say that without the assistance of the United States it would not have been possible" to move toward peace.
Some Egyptian analysts add that Mr. Sadat, who undertook his surprise 1977 visit to Jerusalem on the oft-stated premise that Washington held "99 percent of the cards" in any Middle East peace, is unlikely to risk a crisis with the Americans.
This seems especially unlikely, the analysts say, in light of US promises to supply sophisticated F-16 warplanes and other military equipment to Egypt. The Americans also provide over a billion dollars in yearly aid to Egypt's beleaguered economy.
But if Mr. Sadat would settle for less than full agreement by late May, Egyptian officials stress that he does insist on substantive negotiating progress -- and substantive Israeli concessions -- by then. If President Carter cannot produce at least this, Cairo political analysts do not rule out diplomatic countermoves by Mr. Sadat.
A recent Egyptian Foreign Ministry report says that if "Israel procrastinates and resorts to its usual tactics to flout her commitments under the Camp David accords, Egypt will be ready to face the new situation with a list of alternatives." Each of these, however, could entail problems for Mr. Sadat:
* The most likely, a break in the negotiations, risks friction with his key American ally -- still the only party that can win concessions from Israel.
* Another would be to look to Western Europe or the United Nations to assert an active role in negotiations. If Washington went along, Israel would be under wider pressure to soften its stand on Palestinians. But there is no immediate indication Washington will go along, and no guarantee that pressure would not backfire and harden Israel's position.
* A third would be to go back to the Arab fold, patching up relations with Syria, Jordan, and the Gulf states. But a lot of invective has flown between Cairo and its former allies. It might be hard to restore warm relations. If Mr. Sadat is serious about winning concessions for Palestinians, Israel's US arms and aid patrons must agree to this strategy.
The strongest reason to believe Mr. Sadat might take a new tack is that the Egyptian President has been suggesting he would do so. Mr. Sadat has a habit of doing what he says.