Bickering negotiators for Palestinian autonomy seem to have shifted their gaze well past a May 26 "target date" for full agreement toward a new, if unofficial, checkpoint -- the American presidential elections in November.
Autonomy talks or no autonomy talks, that is no longer the question. The talks are certain to resume, senior Egyptian officials say privately. But the question is genuine progress toward a Middle East peace embracing the Palestinians, and negotiators on all sides seem increasingly to suspect that is impossible until the end of the year.
A prominent moderate in the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut, Lebanon, argues that PLO chief Yasser Arafat also is dancing to this tune. He is likely after the US elections to start a new "diplomatic offensive" for recognition in Washington and a formal role in the peace process.
Egyptian and American officials seem to view the tacit negotiating delay with a mixture of bitterness and resignation. The Israelis, even some of their own officials suggest, are playing something of a waiting game. They view the delay with no great alarm.
The equation could change. President Sadat of Egypt, who has the power to cast serious doubt on President Carter's Middle East policy successes at a time when Mr. Carter is in a difficult fight for re-election, could in effect force the Americans to lean hard for substantive progress long before November.
But the Egyptian President -- despite his "suspension" of the talks, a move shifting attention from the failure to get anywhere near agreement by May 26 -- has given no open indication he is planning a serious squeeze on the Carter administration.
There seems at least one other reason for Egypt's temporary negotiating halt: to stress to the Israelis that Egypt has not reconciled itself to a negotiating process that skirts the main substantive issues for the Palestinians, and does not see the so-far-fruitless talks as an open-ended exercise.
"We are all playing a game in a way," adds one Egyptian negotiator. "We have accepted that any major movement toward agreement is impossible without strong US intervention and that this in turn seems impossible while President Carter is running for re-election.
"But we want some momentum to continue, and we are aiming for concrete results by the end of the year."
The privately expressed hope among senior US negotiators is that they can at least put together -- and announce -- partial agreement in order to keep the flagging autonomy momentum from expiring altogether.
Yet even this, the Americans acknowledge, could prove difficult. Some Egyptian officials fear that a partial accord would simply ease pressure on Israel to negotiate seriously on the core aspects of Palestinian self-rule.
The idea is to break down the political issues -- such as Egypt's feeling that "autonomy" means full Palestinian self-determination, and the Israeli conviction that it comes nowhere close to this -- into discussion of specific powers for an eventual "self-governing authority." That authority would represent the more than 1 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
One US negotiator argues such agreement is theoretically within grasp even on apparently insoluble problems such as water control in the occupied territories -- through some form of power-sharing between the Israelis and Arabs.
Yet both Egyptian and Israeli negotiators have proved unwilling, or unable, to separate political principle from such "specifics."
The latest stumbling block concerns the once-Jordanian eastern sector of Jerusalem, taken, formally enlarged, and annexed unilaterally by Israel in 1967.
The Israeli Knesset (parliament) is weighing a law declaring the disputed holy city the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state, a clear challenge to Mr. Sadat's insistence that the 100,000 Palestinians there be allowed to vote in any eventual "autonomy" elections and that "Arab Jerusalem revert to Arab sovereignty."
The Egyptian President, who has announced agreement-in-principle to restart the autonomy talks, has seized on the Israeli move as a reason not to implement that decision for the time being.
Privately, some Egyptian officials acknowledge that the parliamentary activity does not really change things. Israel, against unanimous international opposition, had claimed a "united" Jerusalem as its capital 13 years earlier.
"The talks will restart," one Egyptian negotiator comments. "The thing is that the talks themselves aren't the immediate issue. . . . The plight of the Palestinians is."
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is more than ready to negotiate that issue, but within clearly defined boundaries:
* Israel would ultimately retain sovereignty in the occupied territories.
* Israel would retain control of state lands; Jewish settlements would stay put. Israel would retain the ultimate hold on water resources.
* Israel would remain in charge of "security" in the territories.
* The Palestinians would get "full autonomy" in other internal matters, but in a manner in no way hinting at an eventual Palestinian state that, Mr. Begin and many other Israelis argue, would mortally endanger the Jewish state.
The Egyptians and the Americans feel this is hardly "full autonomy" as envisaged in the September 1978 Camp David accords. West Europe feels the same way. So does much of the rest of the world.