The statements by four European nations linking their participation in the Sinai multinational peace-keeping force to peace initiatives that Israel has rejected has placed the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a quandary just as it is about to conclude a strategic cooperation agreement with the United States.
Noting the unhesitating acceptance of yesterday's European declarations by the U.S. State Department, Israeli officials said today that they expect the Reagan administration to begin applying pressure on Begin to bury his objections and allow formation of the U.S.-sponsored peace-keeping force, which is to patrol the Sinai when Israeli forces complete their withdrawal on April 25.
But when the Israeli Cabinet meets Sunday to decide whether to veto participation by Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands in the force -- because of their reaffirmation of last year's Common Market declaration on Palestinian self-determination -- it will be haunted by warnings from Begin and other senior Israeli officials that such public "contradictions" of the Camp David peace process would rule out participation in the Sinai force.
Israeli sources say it will be difficult for the Cabinet to find a way to ignore the offensive clauses in the four nations' accompanying declarations, which specifically mention the European Community's declaration in Venice in June 1980. It said that the Palestine Liberation Organization must be involved in a comprehensive agreement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said tonight, "I must say that the European Economic Community, with the statements about this participation, did nothing to facilitate this decision."
The only vaguely objectionable clause of the original declaration by the four prospective Sinai force members stated that joining the force will not exclude them from participating in another peace arrangement, meaning outside the Camp David framework. Drafted in close coordination with the United States, that declaration is understood to have been acceptable to Israel as recently as Sunday.
But the statement read in the British House of Commons and identical statements released in the capitals of France, Italy and the Netherlands, flew in the face of warnings made since Nov. 4 by Begin and Shamir that any mention or promotion of peace initiatives that compete with Camp David would disqualify the European nations from the Sinai force. Israel, Egypt and the United States can vetoparticipants.
Israeli officials said that those warnings were part of "unofficial" declarations by British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington at press conferences last month. Now, one Israeli official said, Israel has been confronted with "official documents" by the four.
Israel's official posture so far on the European statements has been relatively low key, apparently in anticipation of U.S. efforts to find a compromise solution.
The only official reaction was a Foreign Ministry statement that the Cabinet will "decide" European participation in the Sinai force and that the community declarations "would seem to be in contradiction to the Camp David agreements."
While no Israeli officials would publicly acknowledge a link between the muted Israeli response and the negotiations on U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, they conceded that the talks are at a critical stage with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's scheduled visit to Washington at the end of the month.
The dilemma facing Begin Sunday is how to express Israel's indignation over the statements, which are viewed here as a result of Arab pressure, without worsening U.S.-Israeli relations and possibly jeopardizing the strategic cooperation agreement.
If it decided to officially regard the four nations' supplementary documents as purely internal statements for the benefit of their own parliaments, the Israeli Cabinet could find a way around the impasse. But if it chooses to treat the statements as official international documents then the Cabinet would appear to have left itself with little room for maneuvering.
News services also reported that New Zealand offered to join the Sinai peace force, joining the four European nations and Australia, Colombia, Uruguay and Fiji.