Western European states are hading into an open and bitter clash with Israel over their advocacy of self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs. The dispute will intensify if Europe follows through with a call for the revision on UN Security Council Resolution 242, the present basis for Mideast peace plans.
This diplomatic struggle, which could develop into one of the most difficult ever experienced by the 31-year-old Jewish state, could be triggered by the anticipated failure of the United States, Egypt, and Israel to agree on a formula for Palestinian autonomy by May 26.
The clash's initial phases are already under way, signaled by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's endoresement of Palestinian self-determination during his swing through the Gulf emirates and Jordan.
This endorsement coincides with demands that Resolution 242 be rewritten to define the PAlestinians as a nation, rather than as refugees, and with recommendations that the Palestine Liberation Organization be accepted as its sole representative.
The timing could hardly be more awkward for Israel.
Israeli government spokesmen have been trying to parry the French leader's statements and their prompt endorsement by West German and British colleagues.
At the same time, Israel is seeking to mend fences with the Carter administration. A particular concern is to repair the damage caused by a controversial US vote at the United Nations.
President Carter said a "communications error" resulted in US Ambassador Donald McHenry's surprise vote for the dismantling of Israeli settlements in occupied areas and removal of Jewish residents from the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem. Confusion over this vote has made it even more difficult for Israel's policymakers to react effectively.
As one highly placed officials put it, Israel has nothing to gain from being the center of controversy and a cause of embarrassment, especially in a US presidential election year.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Bagin's position in coping with th eUS vote would have been much more comfortable had he succeeded in achieving the parliamentary consensus on the settlement issue that had been predicted by his deputy, Yigael Yadin.
But the ruling Likud Party's insistence on including the ancient city of Hebron in the scope of post-1967 Jewish settlements prevented the opposition Labor Party from joining in a Jnesset rejection of the American vote.
"If Begin would have asked us to stand with him against the dismantling of existing settlements and the expulsion of Jews from East Jerusalem we would have agreed," said Yossi Beilin, A Labor Party aide. "But he insisted on incorporating the Hebron project, which we oppose."
In a bid to convey Israel's concern over Western Europe's shift in favor of Palestinian self-determination, the French and West German amabassadors and the British charge d'affaires were summoned for talks with senior foreign ministry officials.
But even while these discussions were under way, word reached Jerusalem that the Netherlands "has no difficulty recognizing the Palestinian people's right to self-determination as pronounced by the French President."
Israeli special ambassador Moshe Sassoon told the West German envoy, Klaus Schuetz, and the British charge, Michael Pike, that Israel interprets "self-determinaiton" in this case to mean "the right to a Palestinian state."
Citing their governments' support of the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Mr. Sassoon said of the Western governments: "Israel expected them to refrain from employing terminology that deviates from these agreements and from piling obstacles on the peace process and the negotiations now in their midst."
The popular daily Maariv took a different approach. It accused France and West Germany of acting out of self-interest, saying that in this case they sacrificed Israel, just as in the case of Afghanistan they put their trade interests ahead of the West's overall needs.
In this confused situation, Israel's new foreign minister-designate, Yitzhak Shamir, due to take office March 10, will have a hard job on his hands in dealing with Western Europe.