What might have been a smooth, gallant gesture--Israel's giving up strategic territory for the sake of peace--has turned into a last-minute diplomatic test of wills.
Israel was pressing April 20 for a document pledging Egyptian support of the Camp David accords beyond April 25, when the final portion of Sinai is to be returned to Egypt. Israel also wanted Egypt to promise it would not call for a Palestinian state or for a dialogue between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Camp David treaty, which Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, has repeatedly endorsed, apparently was not enough.
''We want to be reassured,'' a senior Israeli spokesman said.
While it may have been posturing, Israeli officials were threatening not to withdraw as scheduled if this new document were not forthcoming.
''Noncompliance with this request . . . can create a situation where the government may reconsider the timing of the withdrawal,'' the spokesman said.
Still, Egypt was likely to comply, so as not to jeopardize the return of the eastern third of Sinai this weekend. Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali was back in Cairo after meetings in which this ultimatum was delivered by Israeli leaders. An Egyptian response to Israel's demand was expected before a special Israeli Cabinet meeting April 21. The meeting is being billed as the crucial test of whether Israel is satisfied with Egypt's position.
''It takes very little goodwill from Egypt (to comply),'' the Israeli official said. ''Egypt has made many mistakes in its relations with us in the past few weeks.''
The final days before the scheduled Israeli pullout--specified in the Camp David treaty at ''not later than'' midnight April 25--have been fraught with these sorts of 11th-hour complications. These and other serious developments in Israel have distracted attention from what Israeli information specialists had hoped would be international recognition of the ''price of peace'' Israel has accepted under the Camp David accords. The distractions include:
* The Yamit drama, in which some 2,000 Israelis have been resisting removal from the northern Sinai community. The government failed to prevent many of the Israelis from flocking to Yamit weeks ago.
* Saber rattling along the Lebanese border, where Israeli forces are massed. There is continuing concern among neutral specialists that Israel is preparing to strike Palestinian targets.
* The harsh crackdown on Palestinians under occupation. Israeli soldiers have frequently fired into crowds. The Temple Mount shooting last week, which caused a storm of Arab protest, added to tensions.
''At the same time it is giving up Sinai,'' writes Labor Party official Gad Yaacobi in the Jerusalem Post, the government ''expresses itself by snarling like a wolf, threatening everyone in its vicinity.''
The independent newspaper Maariv complained that ''now, at five minutes to midnight, some ministers have remembered that actually Mubarak neither talks nor acts like his predecessor Sadat. . . . All the problems troubling Israel in these last days before the return of the area to Egypt have been bothering us for many months.''
The image that this last-minute suspiciousness is creating a grudging Israel may have been of concern to Israeli intellectuals, but government specialists said public image would have to take a back seat to foreign relations.
''From a PR point of view, these are not the best things for us,'' an Information Ministry official said. ''If we don't withdraw on time, that would undoubtedly damage our image. But in some cases, foreign policy must take precedence.''
And what if this latest Egyptian document is repudiated on April 27?
''We should have the document in hand,'' says the government spokesman. ''Then if Egypt changes, it would be a black and white contradiction.''
What was of most concern to Israel was a speech April 8 by Egyptian diplomat Esmat Abdel Meguid to the nonaligned movement's coordinating bureau in which he spelled out Egypt's position toward Palestine. This speech, says an Israeli official, ''caused deep, deep worry here'' because it indicated Egyptian support for a Palestinian state and for Israeli-PLO discussions. The Israeli also mentioned Mr. Mubarak's recent refusal to visit Jerusalem and Egypt's ''eagerness to tell other Arab states it was ready to mend fences'' as points of concern.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Israeli tentativeness this week was that no official Israeli ceremony for handing over the Sinai territory had been announced. Attention instead was focused on the delicate negotiations under way.