Negotiations for the final stage of Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula are taking place under a cloud of Egyptian-Israeli acrimony. Yet despite the bad feeling emanating from both sides, Egypt and Israel seem resolved to keep at least some peace momentum alive for fear of losing all they have risked so far.
Thus normalization continues to be implemented, in letter but not in spirit, with Israel still mistrusting Egyptian intentions, and Egypt believing Israel has no wish for a comprehensive settlement.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Sterner's recent visit to the region was the catalyst for the latest negotiations for the final stage of Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
Both the Egyptians and Israelis were clearly anxious -- the Israelis, that the ensuing security guarantees in this border zone be watertight, and the Egyptians, that this last stage, which would return all of Sinai to their control, be carried off without a hitch.
But the "goods" for which the Sinai was exchanged in the Camp David peace treaty -- normalized relations between Egypt and Israel and the free flow of commerce, people, and ideas over open borders -- has run into snags.
Just over a year after Israel and Egypt exchanged ambassadors, and with the neglected autonomy talks gone to seed, Israel and Egypt are engaged in an acrimonious verbal duel over normalizing their relations.
The latest round began with a scorecard of normalization, released in a statement by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the anniversary of the exchange of ambassadors. In it, Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir complained of "an Egyptian tendency, particularly at the sub-presidential level, to slow down the process and rate of normalization."
While the statement conceded some progress, it said the Egyptian attitude generally alternated between "passivity and opposition."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali hotly retorted, "I never expected the Israeli government to drag bilateral relations into the election campaign and use them as an electioneering weapon."
The Israeli statement, unfortunately, came at a particularly inopportune time , on the eve of the debate in the Egyptian People's Assembly for ratification of the trade, cultural, and civil aviation agreements with Israel.
In spite of an impassioned appeal by Foreign Minister Hassan Ali to the economic committee and the attendance of Economy Minister Suleiman Nour Eddin in a stormy two-hour debate, 7 of the 9 deputies on the commitee spoke out against the trade agreements. They questioned the benefits for Egypt of a trade relationship with Israel.
"Egyptians are not happy with Israeli policies and are not prepared to accept ratification at this stage," said a deputy in President Sadat's own ruling National Democratic Party. "Normalization should be linked to total Israeli withdrawal and a solution to the Palestinian problem."
Another deputy from the same party, who had seen Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on television touring Israeli settlements on the West Bank, said angrily, "After this impudence and defiance, how do you expect us to ratify the agreement?"
In an attempt to soothe the indignant parliamentarians, the Egyptian foreign minister said he hoped a Peres government in Israel would be easier to deal with.