Egypt hopes firm stand on autonomy will draw it closer to Arab camp
Even before US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. arrived here for his Jan. 12-13 visit, Egypt's leaders had made it plain that they would resist pressure to shift their stand on Palestinian autonomy.
They are concerned that any hurried new autonomy agreement would almost certainly be seen by other Arabs as a ''sellout'' of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
This, in turn, would undermine President Mubarak's behind-the-scenes efforts to prepare the ground for a triumphant Egyptian return to the Arab fold once Israel returns the rest of Sinai next April.
Hence, the prudence already characterizing Mubarak's diplomacy prior to the Sinai withdrawal will be aimed specifically at avoiding an autonomy agreement that might jeopardize either the future of the Palestinians or Egypt's own relations with its fellow Arabs.
Conversely, some diplomats here expect that Israel may well press for a vague autonomy agreement precisely in order to tie Egypt down on future negotiations and to hamper Egyptian rapprochement with other Arab states after the April withdrawal.
Officials here believe Egypt can - and must - resist such pressure. They say Egypt cannot afford to sign any such document if Egypt hopes ever to shake off the Arab boycott imposed after the late President Sadat signed the 1978 peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt's tendency to be extremely cautious on this point has been reinforced by Israel's virtual annexation of the Golan Heights. The Haig visit coincides with Arab efforts to orchestrate a campaign at the United Nations Security Council for sanctions to punish Israel for its Golan Heights move. (Egypt earlier deplored the Israeli action on the Golan, but said it would not affect its own commitment to peace.)
As part of its outreach to other Arab states, Egypt has been making direct and indirect contacts with moderate Arab states since Saudi Crown Prince Fahd's peace plan gained momentum last fall.
Egypt's first public reaction to the plan described it as ''nothing new'' and ''not practical.'' Later the eight-point plan calling for Israel's withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967 and granting Palestinians their rights in return for the recognition of Israel was privately regarded as ''a viable second stage to Camp David.''
Though the Egyptians remained tight-lipped in this respect immediately before last November's Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, they regretted its suspension because of radical Arab opposition. Secret messages to Riyadh after the Fez failure are said to have included promising notes of encouragement and clearer endorsement of the basis of the plan.
Meanwhile secret Egyptian-Jordanian contacts intensified and changed focus. In the past Egypt briefed Jordan on the autonomy talks in return for information it could not get from Israel on the West Bank, previously under Jordanian administration. But lately, the two Arab countries most concerned with Mideast peace have been exchanging views on how the Saudi views can be transformed into a viable Mideast settlement formula.
Against this background Prof. Leonard Binder of the University of Chicago agrees ''little can be done between now and April. And I would not call for anything very adventurous.''
The Mideast expert, who is currently doing research in Cairo, believes Egypt is now in a position similar to that of Saudi Arabia when Anwar Sadat embarked on his peace drive, hoping moderate Arabs, especially the Saudis, join the bandwagon. The difference is ''the situation may look remarkably bright on May 1 : Then the Egyptians will feel they have pulled off something no other Arabs have been able to pull off. But for the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Saudis, it looks bleak now.''
In order to forge ahead with the new deal, which seems to suit present Egyptian and Saudi interests, Egypt is ready to leave Saudi Arabia the last opportunity to play the star's role next when Arab heads of state meet again to decide the fate of the Saudi peace plan.
But, Dr. Binder warns, Egypt should ''not put all its weight behind it,'' while it waits for the final round of Syrian-Saudi bargaining to end.