Shifting West European attitudes toward the Middle East are revealing an unprecedented degree of irritation and exasperation with Israeli policies. The latest apparent European rebuff of what is seen as Israeli rigidity comes from the Dutch -- normally known for their close emotional ties with Israel.
In a recent meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Belgian Liberal Party leader Jean Gol stressed the "uneasiness of various circles in Europe" regarding Israeli policies in the occupied territories.
Mr. Gol emphasized that European Community countries should encourage the implementation of the "courageous Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement." But, he added, Israel today is viewed as an "impossible country that must be brought to reason."
European officials strongly deny accusations that they are ready to sacrifice Israel for Arab oil. Israel, they point out, must realize how serious the international situation is.
"The Middle East conflict is not a regional problem, but an issue which concerns us all," says a European Middle East adviser. He adds, "We will all be in trouble if Egypt and Israel do not agree on Palestinian autonomy by May 26" -- the target date agreed on in the Camp David accords.
Europe also realizes the need to counter Soviet thrusts into Africa and South Asia. To accomplish this, cooperation with the Islamic community is regarded as essential. The Arab states, however, demand a solution of the Palestinian problem before discussing any security arrangements with the West.
Notwithstanding the devastating economic impact of high oil prices, European Community officials deny that energy concerns dictate their Middle East policies.
Europe's growing impatience with Israel is said to be caused by the settlement policies of the Begin government and compounded by the lack of warm personal ties between European and Israeli officials. Even within the Socialist International, which has been sympathetic to Israel, exasperation with Israel has reached a level of outright disgust.
Says a senior European socialist leader, "The Begin government is paying for its provocative policies by losing its international forum. [Shimon] Peres and his Labor Party, however, remain a respected member of the Socialist International."
Prime Minister Begin's personality appears to have further eroded the emotional empathy between Israel and Europe, which until recently tended not to forget the Holocaust. "Begin is a man full of revenge," said a prominent European politician known for his deep friendship with Israel.
High European officials complain in that Begin "sabotages attempts at building a dialogue. Meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister tend to become an imposed emotional lecture by Begin, foreclosing any mutual exchange of ideas."
Although European officials decline to define what they meant by recognizing the "Palestinian right to self-determination," they privately maintain that "Israel's existence can only be guaranteed by the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip." These officials compare Israel's position with the persecuted Jews during World War II. "Every morning they should be amazed that they have once again woken up safely," one official said.
Officials and politicians in Europe, still concerned about maintaining close ties with Israel, point out that the European Community appears to be solely concerned with pressuring Tel Aviv to moderate its views.
Within the community the Dutch stand alone in demanding a reference to Israel's rights in any EC pronouncement on the Middle East. "But what are the Dutch going to do if [French President] Giscard, [British Foreign Minister] Lord Carrington, and [German Foreign Minister] Genscher Decide to take drastic steps against Israel?" a high EC official asked, referring to the developing European Middle East peace initiative. "I do not believe that the Dutch will once again isolate themselves."
At the same time, however, European officials confess that they as yet do not have a clear idea of where they are heading with their initiative. In an interview April 2 Dutch Foreign Minister Chris van Der Klaauw confirmed that the EC was considering proposing an amendment to UN Security Council Resolution 242 should there not be "sufficient progress" in Egyptian-Israeli negotiations by May 26.
But Mr. van der Klaauw conceded that Europe does not have the political clout to replace the United States as the principal mediator in the Middle East.