Realistically, there is little expectation that substantive progress can be made on the Middle East problem before the US presidential elections. Yet the need for keeping the momentum of negotiations going is acutely felt on both sides of the Atlantic -- and for good reason. The Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the heart of major economic and political problems confronting the industrialized nations. Until it is resolved, it will grow increasingly difficult to establish stable relations with the Islamic countries, assure steady supplies of oil, and prevent the Soviet Union from exploiting regional tensions to its own advantage.
In this context the decision of the nine members of the European Community to pursue a Mideast initiative ought to be seen in a constructive light. The United States appears unhappy about the move, believing it could complicate Washington's own efforts within the Camp David negotiating framework. But the Europeans, worried about energy and dispirited by President Carter's apparent diplomatic impotence in an election year, see things differently. They believe, and we tend to agree, that failure to move forward on the Palestinian question will only feed what is clearly becoming an escalating spiral of violence and counterviolence in the Middle East that could erupt in large-scale fighting. Hence the need for specific action that nudges diplomacy forward.
The initiative which the Europeans reportedly will announce this week is bold but hardly provocative. It comprises a declaration, to be made at the UN, affirming Israel's right to exist within safe and recognized borders; recognizing the Palestinian's rights of self-determination; criticizing Israel's West Bank settlement policy; recognizing the Palestinians' rights to be represented by people of their own choice at the final negotiations; and calling for a new European-Arab dialogue. Surely there is nothing here that conflicts with the basic elements and spirit of the Camp David accord, which similarly affirms the right of the Palestinians to "participate in the determination of their own future" -- a tortured wording but one whose intent is plain. Such a declaration would not undermine UN Resolution 242, as some US officials argue, but merely supplement it.
The point is that Palestinian "self-determination" must be addressed. If President Carter feels constrained from publicly using this precise term for domestic political reasons, it is nonetheless hard to conceive that the American people do not accept the concept. In fact the European initiative may help contribute to the American debate of the question. Seeing the Eueopeans take the lead on the issue could spur American public support for Mr. Carter's own diplomatic efforts. It might be noted, moreover, that the EC declaration would be read in the General Assembly, where an American veto would be avoided. The Arab states are reported to have assured the Europeans they would not press for Security Council action until after the US election.
Mr. Carter, in short, ought quietly to welcome the European initiative. In parallels his own efforts to make progress in the Camp David talks. It helps keep the momentum going without requiring the President to go out on a limb politically. And it gets to the core issues of the Mideast diplomatic impasse -- Palestinian self-determination and participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the negotiations (though the PLO remains unnamed). We in fact suspect the White House may be publicly opposing the European move strictly with its eyes on the American-Jewish community as November approaches. But, with the Camp David negotiations still unfruitful, it needs all the help it can get to achieve the goal of peace in the Middle East.