West Europe is preparing to launch the second stage of its Mideast diplomatic "rocket." The first stage was set off at last June's European summit in Venice. It listed principles to serve as guidelines for a settlement.
The second stage, to be launched sometime this May or June, will go further. It will put forward concrete steps that the Europeans consider to be both reasonable and necessary for settling the Israel-Arab dispute.
This second stage is not yet embodied in a final document. But its preparatory document, according to high European diplomatic sources, is divided into four parts covering:
* Withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab territories.
* The exercise by the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination.
* Israeli and Arab security concerns.
* Status of Jerusalem.
The European document will not spell out rigid and mandatory procedures on each of these questions. However, well-placed diplomatic sources say that it will list the following specific proposals in the form of options or frameworks:
Israeli withdrawal. The plan adheres strictly to UN Security Council Resolution 242. It recommends the return of territories taken in the 1967 war in return for recognition of Israel's existence and security. It allows for only minor border changes. It proposes several time frames for a phased Israeli withdrawal but leaves room for flexibility.
The plan also deals with the problem of who will administer the West Bank and Gaza after the withdrawal of Israeli forces and before the political status of the Palestinians has been decided. Here again, the document will offer several options: The UN, or an authority selected by the people themselves on an interim basis, or a combination of both, could replace the Israeli authority.
Palestinian self-determination. In this area, too, the plan is described as both concrete and flexible. The Palestinians who actually live on the West Bank and in Gaza are to be given priority as far as voting is concerned. But a formula could be worked out that would enable Palestinians not now residing in the occupied territories to vote -- under certain conditions.
Self-determination could take the form of a referendum or of indirect elections leading to an elected assembly which in turn would determine the Palestinians' institutional fate.
Security. The plan will be based on the principle that all countries in the area are entitled to secure and recognized borders. It will apparently offer various options for setting up demilitarized zones, electronic surveillance systems (such as those now in place in the Sinai), or a foreign military presence (either European or UN).
Jerusalem. On this complex and sensitive subject, the plan is believed to be particularly cautious and flexible. A number of options will be proposed, but the guiding principle remains one that ensures free access to the holy places by all religious denominations.
"The European document is intended as a general outline to a settlement," says a high European official. He says its purpose is: (1) to move the peace process beyond Camp David; and, (2) to avoid the creation of a dangerous diplomatic vacuum between now and the Israeli elections to be held in June.
The European initiative will not call for a modification of Resolution 242, which originally had been very much part of the Europeans' strategy. This change of heart is sure to be welcome in Washington and Israel.
Privately, European officials admit that Western Europe alone is not in a position to bring about a settlement in the Middle East. But they point out that lack of progress on the Palestinian issue has helped divert the attention of important Arab nations from Afghanistan, softening their stance against the Soviet occupation there.
Western Europe, because of its geographical position, has perhaps more imperative and certainly more ancient interests in the Middle East than the United States. Europeans do not want to approach this problem in confrontation with the Americans.Quite the contrary, they say they want to work out a common approach. This is why the European initiative, originally planned for early December last year, has been postponed.
French Foreign Minister Jean Francois- Poncet, due in Washington soon, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and other leading Europeans will discuss the plan with the new administration.
But, says one European diplomat, "The Europeans are allies and not puppets and, in the end, if all efforts to persuade the US to lend its support to the European initiative fail, they will move ahead anyway."
Meanwhile, Dutch Foreign Minister Christoph van der Klaauw, representing the European Community, is now touring the Middle East to consult with the interested parties and refine the document.
Egypt's President Sadat has publicly and privately encouraged the European effort as long as it does not conflict with Camp David. He is reported to have given his support, in his talks with French President Giscard d'Estaing, to the fundamental assumption on which the European plan rests: that at some stage Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization simultaneously recognize each other's right to nationhood.
West Europeans believe that the Reagan administration will have no choice but to move beyond Camp David. The European effort could thus pave the way for the US and perhaps help it move in this direction.
"Publicly, the Reagan administration might complain about our initiative but privately, as was the case with the Carter administration, it may tell us to move ahead," says a European official.