The Sinai desert -- this week scene of painful withdrawals by Israeli settlers from its northwest corner - is already strangely still along its Red Sea coastline. Over the past decade more than 100,000 Israeli campers sought escape from Mideast tensions during the spring Passover holidays on the 250 kilometers of coral-lined, palm-fringed, golden Sinai sand. But this year the Red Sea coast was already off limits in preparation for the final Israeli pullback set for April 25.
This silent coastline symbolizes more than foregone holiday pleasures. For enormous numbers of ordinary Israelis it means the loss of breathing space -- a loss which they may feel more personally than the absence of Sinai oil wells, strategic Sinai airbases or Jewish settlements in northern Sinai. These givebacks are extremely costly. As a result of handing back the oil wells the Israeli oil bill rose from $1.4 billion in 1979 to $2 billion today. The cost of redeploying the airbases -- $6 billion defrayed in part by the US government - has walloped the Israeli economy. And withdrawal of Israeli settlements has split the country emotionally.
But the open spaces of Sinai which vastly expanded Israel's narrow borders had a meaning without pricetag. They provided a psychological safety valve for a country bounded by neighbors with whom it was at war. Until the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt Israelis were unable to travel by land beyond their borders. Even today they remain closed off in other directions. But on every holiday they escaped in droves to the Red Sea coastline and into the vast silence of Sinai's mountains and oases which swallowed up the echoes of conflict. Despite two previous Israeli withdrawals from Sinai, the full impact of shrinking back to smallness has not yet really been felt because Israelis still had access to the coastline and a chunk of the interior.
Unlike the other Israeli-occupied Arab territories including Sinai's northern Mediterranean coast, the southern Sinai was rarely marred by political disputes. It is sparsely populated by nomadic Bedouin with whom Israel had good relations. It had only a few Israeli settlers, located at two vacation villages on the coast and at Ophira on Sinai's southernmost tip which attracted nonideological individualists who sought unspoiled scenery far from urban society. Southern Sinai also attracted dedicated naturalists, who fiercely and quite successfully protected the unique coastal coral life from the curiosity of campers -- and geologists and archaologists who explored the interior.
There are few substitutes within crowded Israel for Sinai's soothing open spaces. Israel's coast is overdeveloped, often oil-tarred and plagued by dangerous currents, and far more limited in area. The lovely hills of Galilee are cold and rainy in winter. Israel's own Negev desert, a nearly landlocked scrubby moonscape which abuts Sinai, will become increasingly crowded after massive Sinai airbases are fully reconstructed there.
The Egyptians, after protracted discussions, have indicated they will ease procedures for Israeli visitors to Sinai after April 25, issuing visas at the border and not requiring exchange of large amounts of currency. But Israelis are skeptical that the ''great escape'' hatch will remain open, and aware that even if it does it will change. They know that Israeli tourism to Sinai's Red Sea coast and interior, or the development of these areas, is not a top Egyptian priority after withdrawal is finalized. Egypt is promoting other tourist areas already including a stretch of Red Sea coast within the Egyptian mainland. The Egyptians are far more interested in expanding Sinai's oil potential and in developing areas closer to the Suez Canal which could be used to settle some of Egypt's rapidly expanding population.
Still, in a country beset by extraordinary pressures, which are likely to increase, most Israelis hope their Sinai refuge will remain available. This will be an important indicator by which ordinary Israelis judge the continued development of the peace process.