``The art of problem avoidance'' is essential in the Middle East, says a well-placed United States diplomat. The Reagan administration will apply that axiom this week to Israeli-Egyptian relations in two separate diplomatic missions.
The intifadah (uprising) in the occupied territories has put relations between those two countries under increasing strain. Egypt is alarmed about Israel's handling of the situation, especially as prospects dim for near-term progress in the Mideast peace process.
The top US diplomat for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, is slated to arrive in Cairo tomorrow to discuss Egyptian concerns and seek its views. Mr. Murphy will come fresh from visits to Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as consultations with his Soviet counterpart in Geneva.
Originally, the trip was intended to take the pulse on the peace process and press US ideas, but Murphy is now assessing the effect of Jordan's decision to cut many of its ties to the West Bank. Saturday King Hussein took another step in that direction, transferring the agency that had been responsible for administering the West Bank to the foreign ministry.
The second US mission this week is aimed at solving a festering dispute between Egypt and Israel over the beach front at Taba.
US diplomats fear the dispute could cause a major blowup, especially in the current highly charged atmosphere. On the other hand, a negotiated solution could be just the palliative required to calm relations between the two key US friends in the region.
State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer left Washington for Cairo yesterday. He will conduct several days of meetings with Egyptian and Israeli officials, looking for a negotiated settlement to the Taba dispute.
The almost decade-long Taba controversy is over less than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of beach front in the Sinai peninsula adjacent to Israel. Both Israel and Egypt claim the strip. An international arbitration panel is scheduled to rule on the dispute Sept. 29.
The big question on Taba is whether the Israelis are capable of settling anything before their elections this fall, says a well-placed US official. But the Sept. 29 date ``should sharpen both sides' interest'' in a settlement, adds another.
The two US visits come in the midst of strain in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Egypt's minister of state for foreign affairs two weeks ago characterized those relations as ``cold or aborted peace'' because of Israel's ``intransigence'' on the peace process.
Last week, Egypt's ambassador to the US called on Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead to protest Israel's recent actions in the occupied territories. The ambassador had been instructed to raise Egypt's concerns at the highest levels and urge the US to use its influence with Israel.
The Egyptians, sources say, are specifically upset by the recent deportation of additional Palestinians to Lebanon, the arrest of West Bank activist Faisal Husseini ``for being a moderate,'' as one source put it, and the continued destruction of Palestinian homes.
``Are the Israelis losing their senses?'' says a well-placed Egyptian official. ``There are even calls now in Israel to annex the West Bank.... We are very annoyed with what they are doing in the territories ... very distressed and concerned about the grave violations of human rights.''
The Egyptian says his government is particularly upset because ``we stuck our neck out supporting the Shultz peace plan,'' and because Cairo is currently trying to establish contacts with the Palestinians ``to make bridges'' for future progress.
The Egyptians will raise their concerns with Assistant Secretary Murphy and probably directly with Israel's delegation to the Taba talks.
That delegation is particularly significant because, for the first time, a senior official from Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir's office, Yossi Ben Aharon, will attend. US and Egyptian sources speculate that this could signal a desire on Mr. Shamir's part to resolve the Taba dispute. Or it may be that Shamir wants to be seen as participating in dialogue with Egypt in the pre-election period, rather than showing flexibility on Taba.
The Taba issue is a subject of campaign debate in Israel. Prime Minister Shamir, the leader of the Likud bloc, recently criticized Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, for submitting the dispute to the arbitration panel, which Shamir said will probably rule against Israel. Mr. Peres responded that the whole Cabinet, including Shamir, had approved the action.
US officials acknowledge that many Israeli leaders would like to forget the issue until after the elections. But a settlement, deftly handled, could eliminate the issue from the campaign agenda and satisfy both Labor and Likud, they say.
Washington very much wants Egyptian-Israeli relations to remain on track and has put an enormous amount of work into resolving the Taba dispute since the early 1980s.
The return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Egypt and Israel are the main fruits of the Camp David accords mediated by President Carter. They are a precedent, in US eyes, for peace with Israel's other neighbors.
The US worries that the arbitration panel's decision could set off a political storm, especially given passions surrounding the West Bank uprising and Israeli elections. Egypt has already cited Taba once in withdrawing its ambassador from Israel. The ambassador returned on condition that there be a solution to the dispute.
Egypt has been the most forthcoming supporter of this year's US peace initiative and for several months has been trying to arrange a US dialogue with Palestinians. Now most observers agree that this broader peace effort is on hold until after the Israeli and US elections.
But the move by Jordan's King Hussein to cut links with the West Bank has added a new element of uncertainty. No one is certain what effects his actions will have on the West Bank, on the Palestine Liberation Organization (which has to pick up where Jordan left off), or in Israel's election campaign.
Even in Israel, where analysts agree that the King's moves were aimed at forcing the PLO and the Palestinians to recognize his importance, many fear that the results could be different from those intended.
Some well-informed Israelis say once the effects of Jordan's cutoff sink in, there could be a violent reaction and new life for the intifadah.
In this context, an agreement on Taba would be a timely sign that US diplomacy and negotiations with Israel can work.
Though insignificant strategically, Taba has become for Egypt a symbol of national sovereignty and Israeli compliance with the Camp David accords. In Israel, Taba is a symbol for many of whether Israel should cede territory to win peace with its neighbors.
Both sides have told the US they agree in principle to an out-of-court settlement, US officials say, and the basis for a deal has been present for the last year. The US proposal basically suggests that sovereignty would revert to Egypt while the Israelis would have liberal access arrangements.
Egyptian officials say that, if ``meaningful sovereignty'' is given to Egypt, the country will be very accommodating on questions of access to the property and managing the several Israeli tourist facilities there.
In Israel, however, Shamir and his allies have so far characterized concessions on Taba as a potentially bad precedent of trading land for peace that some would try to apply to the West Bank. He may well prefer a solution imposed by the arbitration panel, Israeli and US sources say, which he can try to blame on Labor Party leader Peres.
Peres, on the other hand, appears open to a negotiated solution, but seems unwilling to create a government crisis over Taba, these sources say. They add that some Israeli officials say a Taba settlement would improve Egyptian-Israeli relations, while others argue that Cairo would just find another reason to distance itself.