The Carter administration, which yesterday completed a top-level review of the stalled Mideast peace process, is growing increasingly fearful of a split that could put the United States and its West European allies on opposite sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As a result, when Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie goes to Brussels today for his maiden round of talks with his European counterparts, one of his tasks will be to try to dissuade them from actions that the administration fears will work against a successful outcome of the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy.
Administration sources said yesterday that was one of the decisions made by President Carter, Muskie and other top foreign policy officials at their two-day review here of the obstacles that now seem certain to prevent conclusion of the autonomy talks by their May 26 target date.
The negotiations, which had been scheduled to resume yesterday in Cairo, were suspended after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, disappointed at the lack of progress, said he wanted to reconsider the situation.
U.S. officials, while insisting that there is no crisis, said Carter felt it was important to gather the principal figures in the U.S. Mideast policymaking machinery to brief Muskie intensively on the intricacies of the situation and to ponder the moves Sadat might reveal in a policy speech he has scheduled for Wednesday.
In addition, the sources said, the latest slowdown in the talks has raised anew the conviction of many West European governments that the U.S.-negotiated effort to work out a self-government system for the Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli-occupied territories is bound to fail.
That, in turn, is likely to produce new pressure for the nine nations of the European Economic Community, led by France and Britain, to actively support an effort in the United Nations to gain international recognition for the right of the Palestinians to "self-determination" and of the Palestine Liberation Organization to participate in the Mideast peace process.
Their rationale would be that failure of the Camp David process had left a void in the Middle East that must be filled by the other members of the Atlantic Alliance if the West is to preserve its influence in the region and ensure continued access to its vital oil supplies.
However, such a West European initiative would arouse furious opposition from Israel. And the complexities of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, particularly at a time of an American presidential election, almost certainly would force Washington into a confrontation that would see the United States vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the Palestinian question over the objection of its European allies.
The forces whipsawing Carter were underscored yesterday by the president's challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. In a speech to a pro-Israeli group here, the Massachusetts senator accused the Carter administration of a "pattern of betrayal against Israel and asked:
"What is coming next? Will the U.S. support new efforts to amend U.N. Resolution 242? [a formula for Middle East peace that the Europeans envision rewriting to include recognition of Palestinian self-determination.] Will contact be expanded with the PLO, the terrorists sworn to destroy Israel? Is peace at any price -- even at the price of Israel -- a possibility if Mr. Carter is reelected?"
On the other side of the domestic political fence, the likely Republican presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan, also is an outspoken Israeli supporter and would use the same arguments to Jewish voters if Carter failed to go all out in blocking a European-backed initiative on the Palestinians.
As a result administration sources said, Muskie, in his talks this week at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels and with British and French foreign ministers in Vienna, will endeavor to make clear that if the Europeans pursue their Palestinian initiative, they will be moving onto a collision course with Washington that will only increase tension in the Middle East.
The sources stressed that the Mideast situation is only one of several items in a pressing agenda that also will see Muskie going through the ritual of getting acquainted with his European counterparts, trying to iron out the problems of coordinated western sanctions against Iran and dealing with a number of decisions about NATO strategy.
But, the sources added, given the signs of increasing European restiveness as the May 26 target date gets closer, the Middle East situation suddenly has loomed as one that will require serious discussion.
In effect, the sources said, Muskie will emphasize that the United States expects the autonomy talks to resume shortly, that Washington still is hopeful of a successful outcome even though the negotiations will go beyond May 26 and that any competing effort by the Europeans, however well intentioned, would be a self-defeating exercise in creating new tension among the western allies without producing any progress toward Mideast peace.
"We don't intend to go into this twisting arms," one source said."But Muskie is going over there with instructions to let the Europeans know exactly where we stand on the question of rewriting 242 and not be shy about asserting our point of view."
Among those who participated in the review with Carter and Muskie were Sol M. Linowitz, the president's special Mideast negotiator; Vice President Mondale; national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; Harold Saunders, assistant secretary for Middle East affairs; U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, and Alfred L. Atherton, ambassador to Egypt.