Western Europe is launching a new and historic effort to help find a solution in the Middle East by acting as a diplomatic interpreter for the Arab world, Israel, and the United States.
"We can't offer money or guns," says a British official, "but we have political access and diplomatic experience." The official agreed that Europe was not a central cog in the peace process, but likened Europeans to grease between the cogs: "Without grease, nothing runs."
The current president of the Council of Ministers of the European Community (EC), Dutch Foreign Minister Christoph van der Klaauw, is about to tour 14 Mideast countries to refine and sharpen the European initiative launched June 13 last year at an EC summit in Venice.
After consulting with other leaders, he will then visit Reagan officials in Washington, probably in April. This is all part of a conscious effort by major European countries to speak with a single voice abroad and to try, as officials put it, to "offer a more attractive basis" on which Arabs, Israelis, and Americans can hold talks.
The Europeans make two main points:
* The Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have legitimate rights and should be associated with any talks.
* The PLO should acknowledge that the Israelis, too, have the right to exist in secure boundaries.
To the US, Europe is saying in effect: "Look, time has almost run out. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wants more and more settlements on the West Bank before the Israeli election this summer. The Camp David peace talks did achieve something, but they have engendered so much hostility in the Arab world that they can't be the final answer. You want stability in the area as much as we do. We have contacts all over the Mideast. Maybe we can help."
To Arabs, Europe is saying, "We realize that the PLO has rights. We know the Americans well. We have access in Israel. The Arab world is not just a supplier of oil, but is also a big market for European goods as well. We want stability. Let us help."
To Israel, Europe says, "The situation is dangerous and difficult. We have contacts in the Arab world and with the Americans. We acknowledge your right to live in peace and security, but you have to withdraw from your occupied territories. We are open to ideas on how long that withdrawal should take. We consider your West Bank settlements illegal, and we cannot accept any one-sided changes in the status of Jerusalem."
Officials here see the van der Klaauw trip as even more significant now because the new Reagan administration is still in the process of formulating its own Mideast line. Europe, it is felt, might be able to play a key role in getting President Reagan to see the importance of including the PLO, despite adamant Israeli rejection of the PLO so far.
Europeans believe the Camp David agreement is fatally flawed by omitting the PLO and Jordan, and by causing bitterness among moderate Arabs.
But why, doubters here ask, should any of the main parties listen to Europe at all? Mr. Reagan may want to pursue Camp David. Arabs tend to brand countries with historic ties to the Jewish community, such as the Netherlands, as irrevocably committed to Israel. Many Israelis suspect that Europeans, so dependent on Arab oil and markets, cannot be impartial enough to play a useful role.
"We recognize that if Israel or any of the other parties say no, then nothing can happen," comments one officials.
"But one of the most creative roles Europe can play is to interpret each side to the others. We've worked hard on the issues since Venice. We think the situation is urgent, fairly desperately so. We don't want to belittle Camp David: [British Foreign Secretary] Lord Carrington reassured [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat on that when he visited Cairo in January.
There are differing nuances within Europe toward the Mideast: the Netherlands leaning toward Israel; the West Germans taking a pro-Israeli line at home to avoid new charges of anti-Semitism and because of Germany's Nazi past; the French pulled between Arabs and Jews; and the British -- pragmatic, independent of Arab oil, deeply worried about Israeli expansionism on the West Bank, but recognizing basic Israeli rights as well.
Officials in the forefront of the European initiative, however, emphasize that the V enice declaration includes all EC members.