There is a growing consensus among West European politicians and diplomats that Europe is once again sacrificing political principles for economic advantages -- guaranteed Middle East oil supplies and access to the Middle East markets.
They point to the fact that during the 1973 Arab oil boycott, the European Community suddenly discovered the "legitimate rights of the Palestinians."
Now Europe has moved to another new position: recognition of the "Palestinian right to self-determination." Representatives of European Jewish communities met March 16 in London to discuss ways of preventing a change in European attitudes toward the Palestine Liberation Organization. Speaking in a live interview from Abu Dhabi, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing recently informed his people that they need not worry any more about their oil supplies. On an official visit to Kuwait a day earlier, Mr. Giscard became the first EC leader to accept the "Palestinian right to self-determination." Within 48 hours, Britain, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Luxembourg expressed their support for the French President.
By doing so they followed in the footsteps of Austria, Turkey, Spain, and Portugal -- Western countries that Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat had visited last year.
Thus, Europe appears to have fallen into the lap of the PLO without the Palestinians having conceded the state of Israel's right to exist. Last July the PLO launched its diplomatic campaign in Europe with Yasser Arafat's visit to Vienna. PLO executive committee member Ahmed Sidki Dajani promised then that " 1980 will be the year of Europe."
European officials and politicians criticized Austria's initiative for being "ill timed" and "politically unfortunate." But Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky stressed that the PLO's wish to be recognized as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" would not be honored without Palestinian concessions toward Israel.
Nevertheless, Austria last week became the first European country to give official diplomatic status to a PLO representative. Interviewed on Austrian national radio, however, Chancellor Kreisky described this move as a "new form of diplomatic recognition," implying that he had stopped short of full recognition of the PLO. But for both the Israeli government and the opposition Labor Party, Mr. Arafat's Vienna visit was the handwriting on the wall.
Last year France and West Germany had attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the PLO to signal its willingness to recognize Israel's 1967 boundaries in exchange for European recognition.
Mr. Arafat and his associates, however, stuck to their vague promises that such a move would only be possible in the course of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. They pointed to the fragile balance of power within the Palestinian ranks and explained that they therefore wished to postpone the possibly bloody confrontation between radicals and moderates as long as possible.
In exchange for economic advantages Europe now appears to have come closer to Mr. Arafat's line of argument. In past weeks European leaders have been preparing the ground for their own Middle East peace initiative. President Giscard d'Estaing and West German Helmut Schimdt met March 16 in Hamburg in preparation for the EC summit conference later this month.
Meanwhile political analysts are divided on the question whether the Carter administration is the inspiration behind the European move or whether the United States and Europe are on the verge of splitting on the Middle East issue.
Europe's new Middle East policy is two-pronged: President Giscard's recent swing through several Arab countries elicited an official Saudi declaration of "delight." At the same time, Britain's Foreign Minister, Lord Carrington, is proposing an amendment to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is regarded as the basis for any comprehensive Middle East peace.
British officials point to the fact that their former UN ambassador, Lord Caradon, was instrumental in helping to draw up this compromise formula in November 1967.
The Europeans believe that the amendments to Resolution 242, which has been the framework for all Western peace efforts in the Middle East until today, should include:
* Reaffirmation of the right of all Middle Eastern states to exist within recognized and secured boundaries.
* Recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination.
* A call for an international Middle East peace conference based on the amended UN Security Council resolution.
In Amman Feb. 8 President Giscard explained that the five major powers -- the United States, Soviet Union, China, France, and Great Britain -- should act as guarantors of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.
Israeli officials, however, are inclined to believe that the United States is enlisting European support in its attempts to apply pressure on the Begin government. They claim that President Carter wishes to accommodate Saudi Arabia and Jordan without enraging Israel and American Jewry.
Political analysts seem to believe that the Israeli version of affairs was leaked last month to the British Broadcasting Corporation. According to this report, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance last year asked the dean of Yale University's faculty of humanities, Prof. Colin Williams, to prepare a new formula that could replace Resolution 242. Professor Williams is said to be a member of the Aspen Club of Strategic Studies and has served as a member of a CIA advisory council. Moreover, Professor Williams is also a member of the Jerusalem Committee, which was established by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.
Professor Williams' proposal is said to have been submitted to Lord Carrington after approval from Secretary Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Lord Carrington in turn submitted it to Chancellor Kreisky and the chairman of the Socialist International, Willy Brandt. On that basis Yasser Arafat was invited to Vienna.
European officials strongly deny such a "master plan." However, they do admit there is a "constant process of consultation with the United States."