The contrast between European and American attitudes toward the Arab-Israel conflict is one of the longest-running themes of transatlantic discord. The story goes back a long way. For instance, much American language in recent years accusing the Europeans of meddling without responsibility closely echoes British complaints about America's "irresponsible" interference in the late 1940s when Britain still held the Palestine Mandate.

In 1973-74, the Yom Kippur War sparked the most serious crisis in transatlantic relations since the Suez War in 1956. And in 1979, the European Economic Community's "Venice Declaration" was interpreted by many Americans as an attempt to sidetrack Camp David. Happily, the Reagan plan, launched in the wake of the Israeli siege of Beirut, has been widely welcomed in Europe and has brought us closer together. But the potential for future misunderstanding remains.

Some of the reasons we see things in different perspective are obvious. Europe is structurally dependent on Arab oil and gas. This dependence cannot be meaningfully reduced until at least the end of the century. Until nuclear power finally comes of age, Europe must look for energy largely to the Arabs. On the other hand, though America's external energy dependence has grown substantially, Mexican and other sources are now coming on stream to replace its reliance on the Middle East.

Alongside oil, trade is another obvious factor. Europe is, again, dependent on external markets to a much bigger degree than is America. We export more than twice as much as the United States in terms of proportion of GNP. Arab markets are crucial for European industries and services; for American companies, they are no more than important.

These economic considerations are not, however, the whole story of transatlantic divergencies on the Arab-Israel question. Our disagreements have deeper roots.

For one thing, the history of European involvement with the Middle East weighs more heavily than does America's relatively more recent experience of the region. The British, the French, the Italians retain connections and feelings of responsibility toward Arabs that exert powerful psychological pressures below the surface of politics. At the same time, European attitudes are complicated by awareness of Europe's responsibility both for the tragedy of the Jewish people in the 1940s, and for the history of the Palestinian people since the end of the British mandate in Palestine.

Following from this long history of involvement in the Middle East there is also in Europe an undeniable sense of frustration at our present lack of influence in an area that is on our doorstep and of vital importance to us. Europe's quest for common views in world affairs is bound to focus upon the Middle East. If this sometimes gives rise to exaggerations, they should be pardoned by Americans who are also anxious to see a stronger and more politically united Europe.

And then we are led back to an even more basic cause of disagreements -- the way in which differences over the Arab-Israel question reflect, as did the pipeline saga, differences between Europe and America about how to handle Russia.

Is it only a caricature of American policy that leads Europeans to see it as guided, no matter what the particularities of the local situation may be, most of all by the concern to meet an assumed Communist -- or Russian -- challenge? No doubt Europeans find it easier to effect detachment because we are not running in the superpower race. But, for whatever reason -- and it may be simply because such a view corresponds best with reality -- when they look at the Middle East, the Europeans tend to see Arabs and Israelis engaged in a complicated quarrel of their own, rather than acting as proxies in the conflict between America and Russia. Europe sees the Israel-Arab imbroglio, rather than possible Soviet penetration, as the dominant issue in the Middle East. Indeed, it sees the Russian factor as likely to be much diminished if a long-term Israel- Arab settlement could be achieved. Could it not be that the Russians see their encouragement of a continuation of the Arab-Israel struggle, to the discomfort of the West in general and the United States in particular, as, for the time-being at least, a sufficient end in itself?

So while it is evidently sensible -- indeed, necessary -- to make contingency plans lest the Russians decide to seek by whatever means to extend their influence in the area, Europeans see progress on the Palestine question and a reasonable Israeli attitude there, too, as much more relevant to the stability of the moderate Arab states than the development of external military intervention capabilities. Most Europeans would be hesitant about the need or value of Israel's military strength being so much greater than is necessary to ensure its defense against any conceivable Arab attack -- especially after the success of the Israel-Egypt chapter of Camp David.

Where do we go from here? From the European point of view, the Reagan plan -- with its relationship to the Fahd plan, which in turn was a kinsman of the Europeans' Venice Declaration (which was a set of principles rather than a point of departure for negotiation) -- is seen as a real step forward in American thinking.

But we will need to be careful that what could be seen as a contradiction within the plan between recognizing the existence of the Palestinians as a community and acknowledging their collective political rights, and at the same time determining from the outside what must be the consequence of their exercise of self-determination should not become a barrier to progress. The involvement of King Hussein is an essential step on theeroad. But the end of the journey will be some form of Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, whose relationship with Jordan will be for the leaders of both to resolve together.

Which brings us back to one of the biggest differences between European and American attitudes. Europeans do not believe that Israeli survival can be assured, Dodge-City style, by superior "irons." Yet many Israelis continue to see their security in exclusively military terms. But to what extent can, or should, America underwrite unilateral Israeli definitions of what constitutes their security?

Israel has succeeded for years in bypassing American criticism of the expansion of its perceived security interests through the settlements in the occupied territories. Only when Israeli forces had taken over half of Beirut did it seem that they had overstepped the mark.

Yet even that remains to be seen. For we wonder whether there is not a considerable body of opinion in the United States that still remains persuaded by Menachem Begin's conviction that Israel's security is incompatible with any real political rights for the Palestinians. The thought that strikes most Europeans is that the reverse is true -- that if anybody's security would need to be guaranteed in such a situation, it would be that of the Palestinians against the Israelis.

It is of the highest significance that President Reagan's initiative has been generally welcomed by the moderate Arab world, and the European Community should use what influence it has to help it forward. It seems, paradoxically, that the only important dissenters to the plan as a basis for negotiation are the Israelis and the Russians. But we must appreciate that the acceptance of the plan by the moderate Arab leaders puts them, their reputations, and even the future of their regimes right on the line. So it is vital that the momentum of discussion be maintained and that ways be found round all obstacles that will be put in its way.

For there is no difference, surely, between the views of the U.S. and European governments over the generous and understanding treatment that shoulnd be accorded by the world to Israel. But this does not extend to its confronting and affronting the civilized world -- nor to putting its peace at risk.