Israeli leaders are stressing their hope that the peace process will continue undeterred by the death of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. But an element of wait-and-see has already crept into Israeli thinking about relations with Egypt and is likely to be reflected in policymaking in the weeks ahead.
Although Israel is anxious to pursue the peace process, its actions in this regard are bound to be influenced by events as they unfold in Cairo. The Israeli government will be looking for evidence that Vice-President Hosni Mubarak, the prospective successor to Sadat, is firmly in power -- with no coups in the making -- and that he is strongly committed to peace.
Mr. Mubarak's pledge to the Egyptian nation to honor all international commitments and to pursue Mr. Sadat's peace mission is being widely quoted here. It is viewed as evidence that peace with Egypt did not rest solely on one man. Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated that if "the peace process continues, the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai will continue."
President Sadat, the father of the peace, was a figure so familiar here that several Israeli leaders have eulogized him as "like one of the family."
His replacement by the relatively unfamiliar Mr. Mubarak has already led to the sounding of cautionary notes in both major political parties. Israeli analysts note that Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in his statement after the Egyptian leader's death, expressed only the "hope" that the peace process would continue. This was in contrast with Israeli President Yitzhak Navon's exhortation that Israel was "duty-bound" to continue with the process.
Moshe Arens, a member of Mr. Begin's Likud coalition and chairman of the Knesset (parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, was more specific."We will have to stand on guard, study the new man, increase our vigilance, and evaluate the whole situation anew," he said, while adding that Israel should not back out of the peace agreements.
Former Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin advised the government to "wait and see . . . for a month or two." Several Cabinet ministers are said to believe that there will be a definite need for policy clarifications to take place between Prime Minister Begin and the new Egyptian president as soon as he is chosen. Mr. Begin has said he wants to attend Mr. Sadat's funeral, which could also give him a chance to talk with Egyptian leaders.
The prime minister and his Cabinet will undoubtedly be buffeted by conflicting pressures in the wake of the assassination. There will be strong pressure from the right to stop the final Israel withdrawal from Sinai, scheduled for April 1982.
Yuval Ne'eman, one of two Knesset members from the splinter far-right Tehiya (Renaissance) Party, has already said his group's stand against Camp David was "vindicated" by the assassination. Mr. Begin has faced some grumbling in the past about withdrawal from within his own coalition and voices might be raised to postpone the date.
On the other hand, the United States may pressure Israel for more flexibility toward Egypt -- 3n issues like autonomy for the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza -- in order to shore up Mr. Mubarak's position.
Mr Begin will also have to face an Egyptian leader with new -- and as yet unknown -- style and tactics. Israeli leaders, like former Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, who have met Mr. Mubarak agree that he is committed to the peace process. But some Israeli Arabists are suggesting that he will take a harder line on autonomy than did President Sadat and will move to mend fences with the Arab world.
Prime Minister Begin must also deal with the loss of a crucial psychological pillar underlying the Israeli public's confidence in the peace process.
While Israelis have grown more cynical about this process since the euphoric days after President Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, the late Egyptian President to a large extent retained their confidence and trust.
His death left Israelis shocked and nervous. "My heart was pounding. I couldn't sleep. He was a very good man and I hope peace goes on," said David Binyamini, a middle-aged taxi driver, in an emotional response reflected widely in downtown Jerusalem the day after Mr. Sadat's death.
The only celebrants over the tradegy were israeli opponents of the Sinai withdrawal and West Bank Palestinians who has opposed the Camp David peace process because they feared it would not remove Israeli occupation. In Palestinian east Jerusalem and in Nablus on the West Bank, merchants gave out free sweets to celebrate the assassination.