The Israeli crackdown on unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the shooting deaths of at least 20 Palestinian youths have put Egypt in an awkward position - again. Egypt is the only Arab regime that has signed a peace treaty with the predominantly Jewish state and that maintains normal relations with it.
Israeli actions of the past two weeks, analysts say, reinforce the Arab view that Egypt is unable to moderate Israel's policies or to bring about a settlement to the Palestinian problems, despite its diplomatic ties.
``This is embarrassing, there's no doubt about it,'' says a Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``It's the third time that we feel in an awkward position.''
The first time, he says, was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its failure to stop the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. That led Egypt to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Four years of cold peace came and went before Egypt named a new ambassador.
The second time was Israel's bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunis in October of 1985.
The recent violence in the occupied territories also gives ammunition to Egypt's domestic opponents of the 1979 peace treaty.
Among the politically minded, sympathy with the Palestinians runs deep.
Recently, the Lawyers' Association announced that Egyptian lawyers would observe a moment of silence in support of Palestinians in the territories.
And the journalists' association announced a meeting to show similar solidarity.
``This is embarrassing the government, and it creates problems for us in upholding Camp David [peace treaty],'' the Foreign Ministry official says.
Relations between Egypt and Israel will seriously deteriorate if the situation continues, government officials here say.
``Our reaction so far is to continue to express our shock and condemnation,'' says the Foreign Ministry official. ``But there's strong feeling that something [more] should be done.''
Egypt has issued six statements condemning Israel for acts of violence and repression. Israel's ambassador to Cairo, Moshe Sasson, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and given a formal protest.
Officials are reluctant to spell out further measures Egypt could take. One opposition newspaper has reported that Egypt will withdraw its ambassador, Mohammed Bassiouni, from Tel Aviv.
``Everything is in the air,'' says the Foreign Ministry official. ``We are considering if it would be effective and whether it would have an effect on other things.'' He says that Egypt would not want to take actions that had an adverse effect on moves to convene a Mideast peace conference.
Further Egyptian reaction depends on ``what kind of escalation happens'' in the occupied territories, says another high-ranking Egyptian diplomat. ``If it continues, it might freeze relations over a long term and the Israelis are aware of that,'' he says.