The European initiative to involve the Palestinians in future Arab-Israeli peace negotiations has stalled.
Indecision among the European Common Market countries about how to proceed, preoccupation with the Iraq-Iran war and uncertainty about the outcome of elections in the United States and Israel have combined to take the steam out of European plans to tackle the Palestinian problem.
Beyond an increase in diplomatic discussions of the issue, little has been done to implement the declaration by the leaders of the nine Common Market countries last June in Venice that a lasting peace in the Middle East required "self-determination" for the Palestinian people and a role for the Palestine Liberation Organization in peace negotiations.
After the Venice declaration, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Gaston Thorn represented the nine on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals in August and September, soliciting the views of Arab, Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Common Market diplomats in Brussels are now using this information to try to work out European positions on such issues as just what from Palestinian self-determination should take, what the limits of Israeli sovereignty in the Arab territory it occupies should be, and how its security should be guaranteed.
But nothing will be decided before leaders of the Common Market countries meet at their next summit in early December in Luxembourg, a month after the U.S. presidential election. And European diplomats are not certain the nine government leaders will be able to decide on what course to take even then.
Despite many months of discussions, there is no European consensus on how to achieve the generally agreed goal of providing the Palestinians with the opportunity to negotiate for nationhood in return for recognition of Israel's right to exist within secure boundaries.
Britain still favors seeking a supplement to the 1967 British-sponsored United Nations Resolution 242 on the Middle East that would add to it recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination. The British believe this would make the resolution acceptable to the PLO, who would then have to accept its requirement of "secure and recognized boundaries" for all nations in the Middle East, including Israel.
West Germany and some other European nations have given a higher priority to the resumption and expansion of the Euro-Arab dialogue between the countries of the Common Market and those of the Arab League, which has been dormant at all but the lowest technical levels since the Arab-Israeli war in 1973.
Common Market and Arab League diplomats are scheduled to meet in Brussels next month to prepare for formal resumption of the dialogue at ministerial level early next year and to expand it from technical and trade matters to political issues. West Germany and some Arab countries foresee an eventual conference of European and Arab foreign ministers to take up the Palestinian question.
Arab interest in the resumption of the Euro-Arab dialogue at this particular time has been heightened by the fact that the PLO representative is now chairman of the Arab League and thus will be deeply involved in the discussions with European diplomats beginning next month. This will be the latest in a series of increased contacts between European diplomats and the PLO at various levels, which have encouraged the PLO's hopes for eventual diplomatic recognition by the European Community.
But other European diplomats are less hopeful that meaningful discussion of the Palestinian problem will take place any time soon within the Euro-Arab dialogue. Its resumption involves many complicated issues, and even West German diplomats concede that it is currently overshadowed by the Iraq-Iran war.British diplomats also point to the Arab League's split with Egypt after it agreed to the separate Camp David peace with Israel.
Some of the PLO's diplomatic friends in Europe also have noted its continuing public antagonism to recognition of Israel's right to existence and security, although PLO leaders continue to hint in private contacts with European officials that they would be ready to do so at the right time.
The rotation of Common Market leadership among its nine member countries every six months also could hamper the European initiative. Luxembourg will be followed in the European Community presidency in January by Holland, which is seen by Britain, France and West Germany as too strongly pro-Israel to agressively pursue a European policy on the Palestinian problem.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin has remained outspokenly hostile to the the European approach to the Palestinian problem and its implication of future recognition of the PLO and acceptance of its claim to Palestinian nationhood.
Some European diplomats believe it may now be necessary to wait for Israel's elections next year to produce a new government with a different attitude to the question before much can be done.