After recent talks with leaders of the major European allies, the Reagan administration appears to be significantly less antagonistic to a continuing effort by Western Europe to search independently in the Middle East for new approaches to the Palestinian problem.
Detailed discussion of the European iniative by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her foreign minister, Lord Carrington, with President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig last week calmed official concern here that the European effort could conflict with what Reagan eventually decides to do about the deadlocked Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy, according to British and American officials.
"The talks cleared away a certain amount of misunderstanding," said a well-informed British official.
Reporting that Haig said he recognized there is a role for Europe in the search for peace in the Middle East, the official added that the British found "a little more openness" during their visit here.
A senior State Department official said that by the end of the Middle East discussion by British and American officials, "perceptions on both sides had changed somewhat." It appeared then that the European and American efforts in the Middle East were "manageable and integratable," he added.
"Both sides have a better understanding now," the State Department official said. "The U.S. realizes that the Common Market countries have a vital interest in peace in the Middle East, and the British now understand that we are concerned that what they do should be complementary and not cut across" what the United States decides to do next.
Haig told British reporters traveling with Thatcher that their talks "clearly indicated that the objectives of European involvement in [the Middle East] coincide with our own objectives in the broad sense of the term."
Thatcher and other european officials said they do not expect the Reagan administration to do much about the Arab-Israeli impasse until after the Israeli elections in June.
Meanwhile, Dutch Foreign Minister Christoph van der Kaauw, representing the 10 Common Market nations, will be touring the Middle East seeking reaction to a 30-page draft of optional approaches to the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian problems. Some parts of the confidential draft have been leaked to the press.
A senior British official stressed that the draft contains "a very wide range of options" being offered for discussion with leaders of Middle East nations and the Palestinians "to see where a degree of consensus can be built."
Some of the European options have stirred increased opposition to the effort by Israel and some strongly pro-Israeli advisers to the Reagan administration. Among them are withdrawal of Israel troops and settlements from all Arab territory occupied since 1967, dividing Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan or putting East Jerusalem under some form of international control, and having all Arab former inhabitants of Palestine vote in a referendum on whether they want an independent Palestinian state outside Israel's 1967 borders or a federation with Israel or Jordan.
"This is not a cut-and-dried proposal or plan," a British official said. "The [European] Community is not committed to any particular course of action."
After Van der Klaaw completes his consultations with Middle East leaders, he will report back to leaders of the Common Market countries. These European leaders could then take further action at one of their regularly scheduled summit meetings this summer.
In a declaration on the Middle East at a summit conference last year in Venice, Western European leaders laid down two principles they believed essential for a peace settlement: recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination in some form and recognization by the Palestinians, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, of Israel's right to exist within secure borders. The European leaders also said it was necessary for the PLO to be involved, along with other representatives of the Palestinians, in negotiations on the Palestinian's' future.
Carrington, who said recently that he would not rule out meeting personally with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, repeated during his visit here that no matter how distasteful PLO terrorist acts may be, "it isn't any good ignoring the facts of life."
If Britain had ignored leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe when they were being called terrorists, Carrington said, it would have been unable to make progress in solving those colonial problems.
American diplomats see the European initiative as primarily an effort to curry favor with Arab oil countries provide Western Europe with much of its energy and constitute major export markets. European diplomats say their effort is necessary to prevent total estrangement from the West of moderate Arab leaders who believe the Carter administration's Camp David peace process has reached a dead end and that the United States remains insensitive to the rights of the Palestinians.
Neither American nor European diplomats expect the European effort to produce any dramatic results before the Israeli elections or the Reagan administration's formulation of policy on the Arab-Israeli impasse and the Palestinian problem. But at midyear, Carrington assumes the European Community presidency and is expected to make the Middle East one of his top priorities.Efforts at a European-Arab dialogue are expected to intensify about the same time, which also could bring closer contacts with PLO officials.
French sources, who stress the unusual European "convergence" and close cooperation inside the Common Market on this issue, speculate that the Reagan administration may be persuaded to move U.S. policy closer to the European perception that any comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East requires Palestinian self-determination.
Noting the Reagan administration's recently announced shift of priorities in the Middle East from former president Jimmy Carter's Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel to "the deteriorating position of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union" in that region, one senior French official said, "Our very strong view is that there is only one way we can stop Soviet penetration in that part of the world, and that is by solving the Palestinian problem."
Asked about official American skepticism that the Europeans can ever accomplish much with their initiative, particularly so long as it is strongly opposed by Israel, French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet said at the end of his consultations with the Reagan administration here last week, "I don't think the countries of the Middle East can ignore the position of a united Europe."