At a time of new fluidity and uncertainty in the search for peace in the Middle East, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt is trying to extract maximum benefit from the "European card" now lying on the peace table.
His speech to the European Parliament in Luxembourg Feb. 10 and his talks in Paris Feb. 11 are seen by French officials as one way of trying to use European support for a Palestinian role in any new talks as bargaining pressure on Israel.
The members of the European Community (EC) agreed on June 13 last year that "the Palestinian people and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] . . . will have to be associated with new talks. Palestinian people should have the 'right of self-determination.'"
As the EC prepares to gather and refine views from 14 Middle East countries in late February, President Sadat has told it two things:
* The Camp David talks among Egypt, Israel, and the United States cannot be interfered with -- but Europe should continue its own work.
* He supports the concept of a Palestinian entity after a period of transition and agrees with the general European view that such an entity would not threaten Israeli security. On the contrary, he said in Luxembourg, it would be the "best guarantee" of such security. But he ruled out the "Jordanian option" -- joint control of the West Bank by Jordan and Israel.
Mr. Sadat, heavily guarded by 150 security men from Cairo and by hundreds more local experts, spoke at a time when he is uncertain of what the new US administration intends to do about the Camp David talks.
Uncertainty also hangs over Israel, where the Begin government is moving to put more controversial settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan before contesting an election that it is widely expected to lose to the Labour Party of Shimon Peres.
"Of course, Sadat has to support Camp David," a senior French official commented in an interview. "He has to insist he was right to sign it in 1978.
"And Europe is not opposed to Camp David. We simply say that, while it was good for Egypt and Israel and led to their peace treaty, it doesn't solve the problem of the Palestinians. So more needs to be done -- a new way found."
Publicly Mr. Sadat reiterates, as he did in Luxembourg and Paris, that Europeans cannot interfere in the Camp David scenario, which calls for autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip but does not recognize the role of the PLO.
French officials believe nothing can be settled without the PLO, which now has offices in the capital of every EC member except the Netherlands, which is traditionally pro-Israel. After much soul-searching even the Dutch now accept this position.
So Sadat trod carefully here in Europe. He defended Camp David as "an invaluable part of the heritage of mankind." More pragmatically, he saw that Europe's support of the Palestinians could help bring pressure on Israel.
Yet even as he spoke, sombre in a dark blue suit, the scene in Luxembourg underscored the immense work that still needs to be done in the Mideast. Mr. Sadat did not mention the PLO by name in the formal text of his remarks, although he did make critical references in two off-the-cuff asides.
Later the PLO representative in Luxembourg criticized his speech, calling it "deception." By omitting the name of the PLO, the official said, Sadat had retreated from the European position. The official also criticised Mr. Sadat's reference to Jerusalem. Sadat called for free access by all believers and he opposed "exclusive control."