The man in the middle in the Lebanese missile crisis is Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. A Syrian-Israeli military clash in Lebanon would throw into acute conflict Mr. Sadat's obligations to both Israel and the Arab world and would put to the test a key section of the 1979 peace treaty between Cairo and Jerusalem.
Already, the Egyptian leader has bitterly condemned Syrian President Hafez Assad for inciting what could soon be another devastating Israel onslaught in Lebanon.
"We are very worried because a military confrontation would leave us in a very difficult position," concedes one foreign ministry official. "We cannot ignore a confrontation involving any Arab country and Israel but at the same time we now have commitments to Israel too. We have commitments to both."
Officials here will not disclose what position Egypt would take should war break out, but for many analysts President Sadat has already signaled President Assad and the Arab world that Cairo will not get involved. It is expected that the peace treaty will prevail.
Although a pariah throughout much of the Arab world for having signed the treaty with Israel, President Sadat nonetheless sees himself as the supreme protector of the Arab cause. On countless occasions he has asserted that Egypt will overlook the insults hurled at it by fair-weather friends and will come to the aid of any Arab state that is under attack.
But the at the same time he remains committed to the peace agreement with Israel, a stand he reitereated May 13 in a speech to the Egyptian parliament. "The peace treaty is as solid as ever," he declared. "It is not a separate peace. It is the cornerstone of a comprehensive settlement."
Provisions of the accord dealing with the Palestinian issue have yet to be fulfilled, but the treaty has brought good gifts to Egypt. Israel has withdrawn from two-thirds of the Sinai Peninsula, which it captured from the Egyptians in the 1967 war, and will hand back the last third a year from now. Cairo does not want to jeopardize this step.
In drafting the treaty, one of the most contentious and time-consuming problems confronting negotiators was to determine the status of the agreement in the event that it conflicted with obligations of the parties to other states. The final version was ambiguous enough to please both sides.
In defense to Egypt's cherished commitments to the Arab world it was decided that the treaty would not prevail over existing agreements with other countries.
To calm Israel's worries that Egypt might one day abandon the accord in order to side with the Arabs, it was also decided that the treaty would take precedence whenever its provisions were at odds with other diplomatic obligations.
In its ambiguity, therefore, the language of the treaty can offer Mr. Sadat little help in the event of war between Syria and Israel.
To date, however, the Egyptian President has made clear his conviction that his Syrian counterpart is asking for trouble. Since the start of the fighting in Lebanon in early April, Egyptian officials and editorialists have likewise denounced the Syrians.
Only recently and, it seems, perfunctorily, has Israel been criticized. Egypt's official stand calls for a Syrian withdrawal, an end to Israeli air and ground assaults, and the lifting up of the Lebanese Army. "Hands off Lebanon," Mr. Sadat thundered May 13, adding that his orders were directed at both Damascus and Jerusalem.