Next step in Mideast peacemaking - the Palestinians

Both the superpowers and the West Europeans are groping their way toward a new stage of Middle East peacemaking. As the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai proceeds toward its scheduled conclusion in April, attention focusses on the next Camp David issue, the Palestinians - in other words, on the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But in coming to grips with this, the Western governments - the United States and the Europeans - are struggling once again with a chronically challenging dilemma: how to keep on the right side of both Israelis and Arabs.

At the core of the challenge is the need to get Israelis and Palestinians to the same negotiating table. The search for anegotiating formula explains the flurry of confused diplomacy in the Middle East over the past few days and weeks.

* The West Europeans have appeared in most obvious disarray this week. French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson was in Israel, reassuring the Israeli government in the wake of the Mitterrand government's recent apparent tilt toward the Arabs.

He was quoted as saying to his hosts that the European Community's Venice declaration of 1980 was ''absurd.'' This declaration had irked the Israelis because of its pro-Palestinian tilt. But, Mr. Cheysson, in placating the Israelis, immediately upset some other members of the European Community (EC) - particularly the British.

Friends: 'You must recognize the right to existence of the Palestinian people . . . And how can you, without falling into illusion and lies say that there could be a Palestinian homeland but with Palestinians forbidden to create and defend the state structure of their choice?' ''

* The Americans, meanwhile, are endeavoring to keep the region from breaking into violence while part one of Camp David - Israeli withdrawal from Sinai - winds up. The most immediately explosive problem is Lebanon, where the tacit truce between Syria, Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is looking frayed.

Hence the past week's renewed shuttle mission by President Reagan's special envoy, Philip Habib. Israel is increasingly impatient that the Syrian surface-to-air missiles brought into Lebanon in May are still there and that (as Israelis allege) the PLO has been able to rebuild its military infrastructure in Lebanon under cover of the truce.

* The Soviets have also had their man in the area since last week: roving envoy Mikhail Sytenko. He is presumably helping work out Moscow's next moves. He met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut Dec. 8.

Complicating the uncertainties of what comes next in the Middle East peacemaking process after completion of Israel's withdrawal from Sinai is the at least temporary torpedoing by Arab hardliners of Saudi Arabia's peace plan at last month's Arab summit in Fez, Morocco.

That peace plan was anathema to the Israelis from the start. But both the Reagan administration and the EC welcomed part of it because, in effect, it implicitly opened the door to overall Arab acceptance of Israel. What the Saudis had underestimated was the Arab hardliners' objection to the plan because it did just that.

With hindsight, a case can be made that the Saudis' timing of their peace plan was premature. It was in fact first enunciated in August. Between then and the Fez summit, those in Europe and the US who welcomed the plan represented it increasingly as an alternative to the Camp David formula for dealing with the Palestinians.

Such speculation was provocative to the Israelis. To them the Camp David peace plan is virtually Holy Writ; and they did nothing to discourage the thought that if Camp David were sidetracked, they might retaliate by reneging on their commitment under it to complete their withdrawal from Sinai in April.

For that reason, both the US and the EC have introduced a note of caution in their public statements on the Middle East. In particular, they are now saying little about either inadequacies in the Camp David formula for dealing with the Palestine issue or the possibility of a need developing next year for an alternative approach.

One consequence: It looks as if the Europeans will join the proposed Sinai peacekeeping force without insisting that their reservations about Camp David be part of the record.

Yet there is a growing conviction on both sides of the Atlantic that Israel's interpretation of the Camp David formula for dealing with the Palestinians can never produce a lasting or peaceful settlement.

So what is the alternative?

Interestingly, French Foreign Minister Cheysson - at the center of the fuss over his pro-Israeli remarks in Israel earlier this week - told the Paris newspaper Le Monde only last week that the Saudi peace plan was the most promising initiative (for overall Middle East peace) made in years.

What had happened at the Fez summit, he added, did not change that basic fact. But Mr. Cheysson remained silent on the question unsolved after more than three decades: how to get both Israelis and Palestinians to the same negotiating table to discuss any plan for compromise.

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