The lightning two-day trip to Saudi Arabia by British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, has highlighted the emerging European Community role in a new Middle East peace initiative.
The Europeans hope to build a bridge of transition from Camp David to new negotiations based on the eight-point peace plan proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd.
The key element of the European role, pending approval by the 10-member Community, is the participation of four EC nations - the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Britain - in the US sponsored peace-keeping force that will monitor Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
Some Arab states have condemned the move, charging the Europeans are abandoning their backing of participation of the PLO in the peace process and selling out to the Americans.
There is also adamant Arab opposition to the Fahd peace plan - notably from Libya, Syria, South Yemen, and Algeria.
The first and most crucial step is for the Saudis: They must win Arab support for the plan at the 21-nation summit in Morocco later this month. This is perhaps the most important meeting of Arab heads of state in recent history.
Participants in the talks here said the Saudis are ''extremely bullish'' about the outcome as a result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the past month.
Rebutting Arab criticism of the EC's planned participation in the peace-keeping force, Lord Carrington said: ''It should be looked on in the Arab world as part of the beginning of a comprehensive peace settlement in which there will be a withdrawal by Israel from Arab occupied lands.
''Sinai is only one of the lands which have got to be returned. We shall make it clear that we will be prepared to do what we are doing now when other Arab lands are returned,'' a reference to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights - lands won during the 1967 war.
The Fahd plan calls for the return of these territories, as well as the establishment under United Nations supervision of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and the guaranteed right of all states in the region to live in peace. Prince Saud confirmed Oct. 5 that this clearly implied recognition of Israel - a major breakthrough in the 33-year conflict.
By providing some 1,000 troops for the 2,500-member Sinai force, the Europeans feel they build credibility and clout and can subsequently urge a shift in focus in the peace process toward new and broader negotiations based on the Saudi plan.
Lord Carrington explained that by taking part in the Sinai force, ''We shall be able to use our influence upon the Israelis and on the Americans because we are making sure that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty proceeds.''
The Europeans have long been skeptical that Camp David will lead to a meaningful solution of the last major issue: Palestinian autonomy. Like the Arab world, they feel the PLO must be included. One of the strong points of the Fahd plan is that it has the backing of moderate wings of the guerrilla movement, most notably Yasser Arafat, insiders here claim.
Arafat was in Riyadh on Nov. 3 for talks with Prince Fahd and King Khalid. He left 10 minutes before Carrington arrived - at the same VIP lounge.
So far the US has only hinted that the Saudi proposals are an interesting format for possible discussions. But there was cautious optimism here about gaining eventual US backing after the Sinai transfer.
In an interview, Prince Fahd said: ''I believe President Reagan's recent statement regarding the Saudi Arabian peace proposals implies a new hint, and I hope it will be followed by other encouraging hints.''
The toughest job, all sides here agreed, will be convincing the Israelis, who have angrily condemned the Fahd plan and called on the US to do the same.
''The Israelis have become so hysterical because the plan is, indeed, so reasonable,'' one European official here said. ''It is not just radical Arab rhetoric. They see the momentum that is growing in favor of it, and are worried that something will come of it.''
One of the most intriguing developments at the European-Saudi talks was a reference by both sides to a role for the Soviet Union, unexpected especially from the fiecely anticommunist Saudis.
After referring to the US ''hints,'' Prince Fahd added: ''But this does not mean that the Soviet role is less responsible in regard to the events of our region. . . . How I wish we had distributed our role to pressure the two superpowers so we could restore our rights with peace prevailing in our homeland.'' (The Saudis call Palestine their ''homeland'' because it is the base of Islamic religious shrines.)