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.