Western Europe's latest effort at Midweast diplomacy seems likely to deepen the rift between Arab states opposed to the Camp David peace process. Such a rift has been growing for some time, slowly eroding against Egyptian President Sadat. Now the initiative launched by the European Community summit in Venice June 12 and 13 is expected by many Arab analysts to further sharpen the divisions in the anti-Sadat camp.
The reason is that some of the more "moderate" members of the anti-Sadat coalition cling to a lingering hope that West Europe may be able to broaden the peace process enough to make it acceptable to them, too. They would like to climb aboard -- if the Europeans can accommodate their version of Arab aspirations.
The anti-Sadat hard-liners, on the other hand, react skeptically to the new European initiative. "That's all you can expect from the West, anyhow, they're all hand-in-glove," sums up their general feeling. They have become even more determined to resist what they see as "plots against the ARab nation."
Heading the "moderate" group is the surprising new combination of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, plus Jordan. And up to now a principal cause of their growing differences with the hardliners has been the revolution in nearby Iran.
The moderates are deeply concerned that the Islamic fundamentalism erupting in Iran could cascade over national frontiers. This anxiety has proved a powerful unifying factor between the disparate, and traditionally inimical, regimes in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The thaw between them started in early 1979 with new coordination between their interior ministries -- presumably to exchange information and ideas on how to counter Iranian-inspired subversion. More recently the thaw has led increasingly to parallel actions at the political level.
The West European initiative adds a further dimension. Each of the states has its own interest in promoting a European role in the Mideast:
* For Saudi Arabia, a perceived neglect of basic Arab and Islamic interests forced the kingdom to oppose the Camp David process. But the pro-Western preferences of the Saudi ruling family are deeply ingrained, so they probably genuinely hope that Europe can patch up the problems between the Arabs and the West.
* For the ruling Baath Party ideologues in Iraq. Europe has of late come to assume an almost mystic importance, as a nonthreatening third force able to balance between the two superpowers, and a potentially sturdy ally for the nonaligned movement the Iraqis soon hope to lead.
* King Hussein of Jordan, meanwhile, is increasingly lining up with his two largest Arab neighbors, and not only for the substantial aid they both give his busy but hard-pressed kingdom. With the alliance King Hussein started forging with Syria in 1975 now tottering, he is in need of other friendships, and ideologically pre-disposed to the pro-Western ideas of the Saudis.
Arab analysts cite a variety of evidence indicating that these Arab powers are searching probably with or through the Europeans, for an alternative to hard-line anti-Sadatism:
1. Remarks by Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd that he would be willing to make peace with Israel, provided the Israelis withdrew from the occupied territories, including east Jerusalem.
2. Continued emphasis in the Iraqi state media on the value of an active European role in the Mideast, coupled with official pleasure at the results of Iraqi Foreign Minister Sadun Hammadi's recent visit to Paris.
3. Jordan King Hussein's decision finally to visit the US. The King has twice postponed such a visit in recent months, so the general feeling is that he must nowfeel there is something to discuss in Washington, the way presumably having been opened by the Europeans.
The hard-line members of the Arab "confrontation and steadfastness front" meanwhile have expressed increasing reservations about the European role. Even Syria, which in the fall of 1979 was one of the first Arab states to press for a European initiative, now is noticeably quieter in this respect.
The PLO's long-term strategy undoubtedly envisages winning over the Europeans to a recognition of Palestinian rights. But right now, PLO leaders also criticize the European role.