Stymied in its first hesitant stab at playing a leading role in the Middle East peace process last year, Europe has embarked on another bid to restore the Mideast influence it has seen virtually vanish following the 1956 Suez fiasco.
As with the Israeli invasion of Suez 25 years ago with the aid of French and British troops, the latest diplomatic foray could provoke a major policy clash with the United States in the region.
Largely because of American suggestions that a separate European stance regarded as more pro-Palestinian could sabotage the plodding Camp David negotiations, Europe held most of its diplomacy in check for several months last year.
Following this period, during which its so-called "Middle East initiative" appeared to have been quietly discarded, the European Community again has been thrust into the geopolitical whirlpool of that region.
As part of this new phase in the delicate operation, two Palestinian mayors expelled from the occupied West Bank area by Israel have voyaged through several Western European countries to dramatize teir case. This Palestinian effort has surfaced in the midst of a renewed debate involving Europeans, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the opposing forces in the Middle East.
The apparent outcome of this latest round of debate, decided at a recent meeting here of EC foreign ministers, is a determination to continue European diplomatic contracts with all parties in the Middle East dispute even in the face of warnings from the new Reagan team in Washington.
The most recent episode was revived, strangely enough, by acerbic comments from Mr. Kissinger during his private five-nation Middle East tour earlier this month.
Using language similar to attacks he leveled at Europe as secretary of state in 1974 when the EC first sought to forge closer links with the Arab world following the Middle East war and oil embargo, Dr. Kissenger warned, "I do not see [that] we can go on indefinitely insisting on united defense and separate foreign policies."
European governments privately expressed particular irritation at this new American criticism of their Middle East policy. And British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington underlined Europe's independence from US pressure by instantly setting off on the EC new round of Arab-Israeli talks.
In talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Lord Carrington repeated the position drafted at the EC's June 1980 summit -- despite the cool reception it had previously received by most parties except Arabs hostile to the Camp David process.
While Mr. Begin remained inflexible with Carrington on the Palestinian question, President Sadat seemed more receptive to the European efforts than last year. Some European observers have interpreted that Mr. Sadat may be trying to maneuver for European support in the face of an expected tougher pro-Israel stance by the Reagan administration and an impending leadership change in Israel.
Fitting easily into this European bid, exiled Palestinian mayors Muhammad Milhem of Halhul and Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron during their European tour adopted a generally moderate tone in their attacks against Israel.
Mayor Milhem, who along with his colleague staged a brief hunger protest in the United Nations in December, acknowledged that he and most Palestinians supported the Palestine Liberation Organization and saw little hope from the Reagan administration or a possible Labor government in Israel in place of the Begin team. But he also repeatedly kept open the possibility of accepting the presence of Israel: "Jews and Arabs can live in two neighboring states, there is nothing against that," he said, adding, "We don't seek to profit at the expense or anybody. . . . We Arabs are more careful about the sec urity of everybody including Jews."