The United States is sending signals of reassurance to its allies - especially Israel and Egypt - saying that although one phase of Camp David is ending, its interest in maintaining the momentum of the peace process remains.
American diplomats here say these signals are being picked up by diplomatic antennae in the Middle East -- not least because of the frequency of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's visits to the region during the past two weeks.
''The first time Mr. Haig came (Jan. 13), I accepted that it could have been a fact-finding mission, though I wondered why the American secretary of state needed to find the facts himself,'' a high-level Egyptian official told the Monitor just before Haig's return to Jerusalem Jan. 27 and visit to Cairo Jan. 28.
''At any rate, he found out that we (Egypt and Israel) are stuck on issues that we cannot move on because they are so fundamental. Now he is coming back,'' the official said, ''and I ask myself: Does he have something new?''
Egyptians and Israelis express identical pessimism about Mr. Haig's ability to jog the autonomy talks -- inaugurated with great hopes in May 1979 at Beersheba, Israel, but effectively stalled since May 1980. That was when a harsh Israeli crackdown on West Bank Palestinians prompted Egypt's Anwar Sadat to suspend the talks. They were resumed last fall, but since Mr. Sadat's assassination they have lost virtually all momentum.
An American diplomat recently told the Monitor he believes that had Sadat survived he might have ''gone for a grand stroke about now that would have rearranged the board'' at the autonomy negotiations. But his successor, Hosni Mubarak, does not seem to share that sort of boldness.
Officials of the two Camp David partner countries have hinted in recent days they believe that Mr. Haig is considering either broadening Camp David or merging it with Saudi Crown Prince Fahd's eight-point proposal (which would trade Arab recognition of Israel and nonbeligerence for an Israeli pullout from territory it captured in 1967). Egyptian officials say they are advocating such an American move. The Israelis say it is unacceptable.
American diplomats insist they have had no inkling of a ''son of Camp David'' being in the works back home. What Mr. Haig is doing, one says, ''is plodding ahead,'' trying to find common ground on which Egypt and Israel agree so that a declaration of principles toward Palestinian autonomy can be devised.
''But to what end?'' The Egyptian official asks. ''Camp David got around a lot of difficult issues with wording. But now we are left with those issues, and I do not believe we can get around them again.''
In the Egyptian view, even the questions of the status of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements in occupied territory -- both of which were deliberately circumvented in Camp David -- can be resolved. But the three most fundamental points on which Egypt must hold its ground, he says, are (1) Palestinians' jurisdiction over their own land; (2) the right of a Palestinian ''self-governing authority'' to initiate legislation; and (3) the Palestinians' retention of powers not specifically delegated to another body, such as the Israeli military government.
These points are not negotiable by Egypt, says the Egyptian official, ''because they involve the future power of the Palestinians to govern themselves , and we cannot bargain on those matters.''
His words echo those of Egyptian President Mubarak in an interview with the Cairo daily al-Akbar earlier this week: ''My thinking is, what new thing could he (Mr. Haig) be carrying with him? We have nothing to concede on. . . . The Palestinian problem is up to the Palestinians. They are the first and last to decide on their fate.''
To involve the Palestinians in the autonomy negotiating process would mean bringing in other Arab countries. The fortunes of the Palestinians are bound up with four countries in particular: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, where most of the 2 million diaspora Palestinians live and work. Some diplomats suggest that Jordan and Saudi Arabia be brought in first with Lebanon and Syria isolated so as not to hinder the moderates. But even the moderates would have to come under a plan other than Camp David, since the very words are anathema to Arabs other than Egyptians.
But until that kind of plan can be developed, the Mideast will be in a post-Camp David transitional period. Heightened US involvement, says the Egyptian official, may be intended to insure this sensitive time is not one of retrogression.
''There is more tendency toward peaceful resolution of conflict in the Middle East today than at any time since 1948,'' the official says. ''War has shown itself again and again to be conterproductive. The Iran-Iraq War shows just how futile a war can be. So you have people willing to look at political solutions that they would never have looked at before. But it is like a fire, you have to keep adding wood to it to keep it warm.''
Thus Mr. Haig's second swing through Jerusalem and Cairo this week is designed to show that America still wants to be the one to bring wood to keep the fire going.