Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, losing what once seemed an ironclad faith in the US- sponsored Camp David peace framework, appears to be positioning himself for a possible change in strategy.
Although Mr. Sadat says he is content to sit tight until the United States presidential elections in November, indications are increasing that he is determined to make progress in the stalled Palestinian autonomy talks promptly thereafter.
To this end, he is pressing for an Egyptian- American-Israel summit after the November balloting.
At the same time, say aides to Mr. Sadat, the Egyptian President is sending an implicit message to the US to assume its responsibility as a full partner in the Middle East peace process -- and a warning that this may be the last chance to save US credibility in the region.
Simultaneously, Mr. Sadat is readying himself for possible alternatives to Camp David from Europe or elsewhere. Whether he actually would dump the treaty so closely identified with the man he calls "my friend Jimmy" is an open question. But the fact that he now sees fit to point toward Washington is an indication of the frustration he is said to be feeling at this stage of negotiations with Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
"For the first time in several months, Egyptian diplomacy is on the offensive ," says a close aide and confidant of Mr. Sadat.
A series of developments has caused this. First came the Israeli Knesset's enactment of a law formalizing annexation of east Jerusalem, which was wrested from Jordan in 1967. Then followed Mr. Sadat's suspension of Palestinian autonomy talks and an exchange of recriminatory letters between Messrs. Sadat and Begin in the past two weeks.
Mr. Sadat feels it is important to show American voters in the coming elections that the future of Mr. Carter's greatest foreign policy achievement is questionable because of American inability to pressure Israel to end its "provocative" action, the aide adds.
Referring to the third partner in the process that started in September 1978 with signature of the Camp David accords, Mr. Sadat admits, "It is not fair that we impose this problem of ours on our friend and partner President Carter at this time, in view of the more immediate problem he is facing."
Nevertheless, he says, the "best method" available to break the stalemate is to covene a summit "in an effort to uproot the longstanding differences before they develop and threaten our efforts."
Initial US and Israeli response to the summit call has been less than enthusiastic, but Egyptian officials view this as normal and expectable. Meanwhile, Mr. Carter is preparing to dispacth special envoy Sol Linowitz to the area to try to unclog the negotiating stalemate, possibly by getting Egypt and Israel to sign a declaration of principles.
The Linowitz mission is unlikely to improve the situation dramatically, although it might help Mr. Carter politically.
One Egyptian official conjectures that at this decisive stage in the US presidential campaign, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan may suggest alternative ways to maintain the unique Us role in the Middle East settlement. This, says the officials, could push Mr. Carter to "make promises," and in turn lead Mr. Reagan to make more generous offers.
"Our goal is to keep the Middles East high on the list of US foreign policy concerns, and rally US public opinion to our side," the official says.
If Mr. Carter wins re-election, the aide says, he undoubtedly will try to "compensate for the time wasted and take effective moves toward a settlement." And if Mr. Reagan wins, the aide predicts optimistically, "This will be his first foreign policy test, and he will be tempted to prove that he is more capable of handling this complicated problem than Carter was."
Moreover, by November, outside alternatives to Camp David may have crystallized. These included efforts started by the European Economic Community to broaden the peacemaking operation, and an initiative made by Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu aimed at convening a United Nations-sponsored peace conference.
Viewing the Palestinian autonomy talks as growing "increasingly sterile," Egypt is seriously considering these other possibilities, a senior Foreign Ministry official says.
But one should note that Egypt's options also are limited, since Israel still holds one- third of the Sinai, all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.