Washington — In subtle -- almost imperceptible -- ways the United States seems to be shifting toward a less negative attitude toward the Western European's planned diplomatic initiative on the Middle East.
This is not to say the White House has decided that the initiative would be helpful. But a number of American officials, and most notably some of the professionals in the State Department, have come to the conclusion that the European move is not likely to undermine the American-sponsored Camp David peace process.
Some observers felt that Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's speech on the Middle East June 9 reflected a shift toward a more positive emphasis and away from the critical remarks Mr. Muskie had made earlier concerning the Europeans.
"We do not object to new initiatives that would further the Camp David process," the Secretary said in a speech prepared for delivery to the Washington Press club. "But we will strongly oppose any efforts that would derail that process."
The Americans apparently hope that the statement which is expected to emerge from the meeting of the nine members of the European Community (EC) later this week will not be presented, in public at least, as an alternative to the Camp David process but will be set forth more as a supplement to it. This seems to be the direction in which the Europeans are moving.
American officials are reluctant to comment publicly on any of this before the European proposal is complete. One senior official said the initiative was "still evolving." But the outlines of the proposal, as reported June 9 in this newspaper, amount to less than what the Americans originally feared the initiative would come to.
One official pointed out, for instance, that the Europeans are likely to call for recognition of the Palestians' right to "self-determination." The official said this would be more moderate is scope than a proposal calling for "national self-determination," a phrase apparently favored by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and which can mean nothing other than an independent Palestian state. Any talk of a Palestian state has been strongly opposed by Israel.
More important, however, US officials welcome the fact that the European statement on the Middle East apparently will not be presented in any form at the UN Security Council in this election year. That would have provoked a US veto and created a controversy that the Carter administration would prefer to avoid during this delicate period.
None of this means that any kind of formal deal has been made with the Europeans over the Palestian issue. But a tacit understanding may be in the making whereby the US would be prepared to be more positive toward a European initiative once the Nov. 4 election in past. At the moment, however, President Carter is clearly fighting for votes in the American Jewish community, and the President does not want to be associated with any UN initiative that would be opposed by Israel.
One analyst of Middle East affairs summed the situation up this way: At first the administration thought the European initiative would not only be not helpful but would also undermine the Camp David process. Now, most officials think it will not undermine Camp DAvid. Some think it will still be unhelpful. Others think it might have a beneficial impact on the American public by showing that America's European allies are prepared to move ahead of the US on the Palestinian question.
US Ambassador to the UN Donald McHenry told reporters at a breakfast meeting June 9 that he thought the US public could benefit from more discussion and reflective thinking on the Mideast.