The scent of Kissinger-era ''shuttle diplomacy'' was in the air.
Alexander M. Haig Jr., protege of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, this week jetted to Cairo, then Tel Aviv. He hinted that after returning to Washington he wouldn't mind jetting over the Sinai a time or two more in order to break the deadlock in the Camp David Palestinian autonomy talks between Egypt and Israel.
But could Mr. Haig's shuttling do the trick?
By the time he reached Israel Jan. 14, Mr. Haig had been able to establish that Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy will not end April 25 when Israel returns the remainder of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.
He also still hoped that he could work out a declaration of principles concerning autonomy that Egypt, Israel, and the United States could agree on. But it was unlikely that this declaration would be drawn up while Mr. Haig was in the Middle East. Indeed, outside of philosophical agreement on the need for a just and lasting peace, there seemed little room for compromise in either Egypt's or Israel's position.
''What's there to shuttle over?'' asked an Israeli official whose thinking usually approximates that of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. ''We've given up the Sinai. We are not about to drastically modify our position (on the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem). Pulling out of Sinai is really the end of an era.''
Egypt, under its cautious new President, Hosni Mubarak, similarly appears reluctant to stick its neck out to salvage the autonomy talks before it gets Sinai back April 25. Egypt is believed to be preparing to mend fences with the Arabs who rejected Camp David -- primarily, Saudi Arabia.
''When we were in Egypt in November,'' a senior Israeli official commented Jan. 14, ''we got the clear impression that Egypt does not want an agreement before April.''
The basic differences, in essence, are that Egypt sees ''autonomy'' as implying a five-year transition period for the Israeli-occupied territories, followed by Palestinian ''self-determination,'' leading undoubtedly to a Palestinian state. The current Israeli government would allow some self-government for the 1.2 million residents of the occupied territories, but the territory would remain firmly under Israeli control.
Most Middle East analysts are skeptical about the ability of shuttle diplomacy to bring about a compromise between such opposing views.
Shuttling has proven useful in situations such as last year's Syrian-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts in Lebanon. That was when special US envoy Philip C. Habib was able to ease the crises by numerous swings around the region. And shuttling worked most notably in 1974-75 when Mr. Kissinger worked out Egyptian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreements.
But any hopes Mr. Haig might have had that he could bring off a major breakthrough this time appear to have been abandoned.
''The secretary is gathering information,'' a State Department official commented. ''He is doing this in order to find out what the positions are and how the (autonomy talk) process might be enhanced.''
No one argues that Mr. Haig wants a breakthrough.
''It was clear to us,'' commented an Israeli official who sat in on talks Jan. 14 between Mr. Haig and Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, ''that there was an American interest in moving to agreement before April.''
Israeli officials, however, seem resigned to letting the Sinai deadline pass without a West Bank-Gaza autonomy agreement, even though Egypt then would be under less pressure to negotiate. But there are periodic assertions by American and Israeli officials that Israel might offer some sort of concession -- possibly a showy but insubstantial one -- to warm up relations with Washington.
As of this writing, however, there had been no sign of an Israeli concession in the works. Moreover, because Mr. Begin governs Israel by a slim parliamentary margin and a patchwork coalition, too conciliatory a gesture toward Egypt or the Palestinians could cause his government to fall.
With both Egypt and Israel constrained by political considerations, observers here believe it is unlikely Mr. Haig will find sufficient diplomatic material with which to conduct a shuttle.