The 10 European Economic Community countries are nearing an agreement on reviving their Middle East peace initiative that would entail the participation of Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands in the U.S.-led Sinai peace-keeping force.
A diplomatic spokesman for Britain, which currently holds the Common Market's presidency, said a "consensus is emerging" after discussions among the organization's foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday and today. Diplomats said there would be more negotiations in the next few days about the wording of an announcement and the Europeans' rationale for participating in the Sinai force.
The ministers are still seeking the best formula, according to European diplomatic sources, for tying participation in the Sinai force under the Camp David agreement with the Europeans' independent initiative to involve the Palestine Liberation Organization in future peace negotiations in the Middle East.
The complexity of the European task increased today with the statement by Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali in Jerusalem, where he completed talks with Israeli leaders, that the Camp David formula remains the framework for future peace negotiations. Details, A19.
On the other end of the spectrum, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev said in Moscow that the Kremlin favors its own longstanding proposal of an international conference on the Middle East involving the Soviet Union and the PLO, both of which have been excluded from recent peace moves.
The accelerating pace of initiatives from all quarters reflects a growing perception that the death of president Anwar Sadat of Egypt has reopened the bidding in Middle East diplomacy.
The European contribution to the Sinai force is expected to include a few hundred troops from Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands. British participation very likely would be followed by Commonwealth members Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
In Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved legislation that would commit a maximum of 1,200 U.S. troops to the Sinai force, The Associated Press reported. A similar bill has passed the Senate.
Since the assassination of Sadat, both the U.S. and Egyptian governments have been pressing the Europeans to agree to requests made earlier to contribute to the international force, which will police the final Israeli withdrawal next April from the Sinai under the Camp David agreement. "There has been greater urgency since Sadat's death," said one diplomat, because of the perceived need of the new Egyptian government to achieve the complete return of the Sinai.
This was referred to publicly for the first time in Luxembourg by French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, who told reporters there that Egyptian officials, with U.S. approval, asked for European participation after Sadat's assassination. "Now, more than ever," he added, "it's important that Egypt does not experience failure."
Cheysson reportedly argued most forcefully for rapid Common Market agreement to participation by Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands in the Sinai force, according to diplomats, while the Common Market's newest member, Greece, expressed strong doubts.
The Greek foreign minister reportedly said that by participating in the Camp David process the Europeans would compromise their efforts to involve the PLO and Arab nations hostile to Camp David.
The Libyan and Syrian governments, two staunch opponents of the Camp David agreement, have warned that participation in the Sinai force could affect European interests generally in the Middle East and jeopardize the reestablishment of a formal "Euro-Arab" dialogue between the European Economic Community and the Arab League, according to diplomats here.
In an apparent answer to this pressure, Cheysson told reporters in Luxembourg yesterday that "those who criticize the Sinai force do so out of ill will or because they do not want the evacuation" of the Sinai by Israel.
As for the Europeans, Cheysson said, "It would be absolutely incoherent to applaud the pullback and refuse to lend a hand. We must take the risk. We must not let Egypt down now."
Referring to efforts by the Common Market nations collectively to wield greater international influence with independent policies on questions like the Middle East, Cheysson added that participation in the Sinai force "is vital if the European Community is to be more than a talking shop."
Other European diplomats have refused to be as outspoken as Cheysson for fear of increasing the risk of damage to the Common Market's relationships in the Middle East, according to informed sources. They are seeking instead to draft a joint statement explaining participation in the Sinai force as compatible with European peace initiatives in the Middle East, the sources said.
One well-informed diplomatic source said it could be an opportunity for the Europeans to advance their case by adding action to words and by gaining influence with the United States and Israel. The Europeans are seeking Israeli recognition of the Palestinians' right to self-determination and PLO recognition of Israel's right to exist within secure borders.
European diplomatic sources said British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington and Cheysson presented the emerging European position to Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd at the North-South summit meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last week.
Carrington will visit Saudi Arabia next week, representing the 10 Common Market nations, to discuss Prince Fahd's Middle East peace proposal. It hints at Arab recognition of Israel in return for establishment of a Palestinian state on Israeli-occupied Arab territory with its capital in what was the Arab portion of Jerusalem.
Some of the Common Market nations want to include a specific reference or link to the Saudi plan in the European Economic Community statement on participation in the Sinai force, to minimize alienation of Arab opponents of Camp David, according to diplomatic sources.
Washington Post correspondent Dusko Doder reported from Moscow:
Brezhnev called his proposal for an international conference on the Middle East "the alternative to Camp David," asserting that joint U.S.-Israeli policies "mean blood, destruction and sorrow for the Arabs."
In a vigorous push to regain diplomatic initiative in the region following Sadat's death, the Soviet leader coupled a stinging attack on the Reagan administration with new details about his proposal.
He said that the PLO should take part at the conference "on equal footing" with Arab states neighboring on Israel. He added that countries representing Western Europe, North Africa and South Asia may take part along with the Soviet Union and the United States in the seach for a "just and all-embracing Middle East settlement."
Speaking at a Kremlin dinner honoring visiting North Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Brezhnev denounced American "sabre-rattling" in the Mediterranean. This, he said, is "used for interference in internal affairs of the Egyptian people and creates a danger for the security of Libya."
When advanced last February, Brezhnev's Middle East plan was largely ignored. Its restatement reflects assessments that its chance for gaining support are far better following the death of Sadat.
Western diplomats here said Brezhnev's formulation tonight appeared to exclude Saudi Arabia. The Soviets are known to be concerned about Saudi peace proposals and the possibility that some Arab states that vigorously opposed Sadat may now moderate their policies and move closer to the Saudis