The unusual outburst of a junior British government minister after visiting Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip reflects a growing concern and mounting frustration in Western Europe with the lack of progress toward a Middle East peace settlement.
Political analysts also believe that the incident underscores what one experienced diplomat described as a "feeling of exasperation" at the lack of greater American will to resolve the crisis and fast-receding expectations from a damaged U.S. Administration in an election year.
Initially discounted by many as the actions of a brash young minister relatively new to foreign affairs, the conduct of Britain's minister of state in the Foreign Office, David Mellor, is now increasingly viewed as part of a calculated British attempt to spur a revival of the stalled Middle East peace process.
"What I said in Gaza has been the subject of intense debate, as it should be and as I intended it to be," Mellor said Wednesday before his departure for London. Back in the British capital, he declared: "If you speak softly, you are ignored."
Tour of Refugee Camp
Mellor touched off the incident after touring the Jabaliya refugee camp outside Gaza on Monday, when he labeled conditions there "an affront to civilized values." He later criticized Israeli government policy in the area and chastised an Israeli army colonel for the arrest of a 14-year-old boy outside the camp during his visit.
Rather than trying to smooth over the incident, Foreign Office sources in London quickly referred reporters to equally pointed comments made last fall, albeit in a lower-key style, by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe.
On that occasion--a speech to British Jewish leaders during the Conservative Party's annual conference in Blackpool--Howe described the occupation of Arab territories as "brutalizing." He accused Israel of violating international law there and said failure to resolve the crisis would damage Israel.
Defending Mellor's actions in Gaza, a Foreign Office official said Wednesday: "He took advantage of the spotlight and used his talents to make a point that's been made before: Something must be done."
Saidal Awaidah, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in London, said Mellor "was really reiterating the British government's position on the issue, but in the right place and at the right time." Awaidah went to the Foreign Office to express his thanks and his belief that Mellor's statements had helped to win passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday urging Israel not to expel from the occupied territories nine Palestinians it has deemed security risks.
(Another British politician, Gerald Kaufman, who is the opposition Labor Party's spokesman on foreign affairs, also clashed with Israeli authorities, a member of a British television crew said Wednesday. Brent Sadler of Independent Television News said Kaufman obtained his release and that of two colleagues after they were arrested filming a disturbance at the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus, which Kaufman was visiting, according to news agency reports.)
The sense of urgency about the need to resolve the crisis extends beyond Britain to other West European countries.
Call for Peace Conference
Last Dec. 5 in Copenhagen, the 12 European Communities heads of government were unable to agree on internal economic reforms, but they quickly endorsed a declaration reiterating their proposal that an international peace conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict "be held as soon as possible."
The European perception is that the three-year-old idea of an international peace conference, which would include the Soviet Union, was initially given a belated, lukewarm endorsement by the United States. Then, after visiting Israel and Europe in October, Secretary of State George P. Shultz declared that efforts to set up such a conference had reached a dead end and should be abandoned.
Two weeks after the Copenhagen summit, Danish, Belgian and West German ambassadors to Israel, representing the European Communities countries, called on the Israelis to respect refugee rights and urged a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
But political observers here interpret the unequivocal British endorsement of Mellor's statements as a significant step in pressing for a new diplomatic initiative to resolve the conflict.
They see the action against a backdrop of impending elections in both Israel and the United States, a time when politicians from both countries will likely be reluctant to risk considering new proposals on such a sensitive issue.
Might Prompt Action
Few here believe that Britain or any European country--or group of European countries--could replace the United States as the principal Western player in any settlement. However, there is a sense that carefully directed diplomatic shots might provide a catalyst for greater action.
"Europe can't move the Arabs into talks or the Israelis off center, but it can influence the debate in Israel and inside the (Reagan) Administration," said Anthony Parsons, a former British representative to the United Nations and a respected Middle East expert. "I don't think quiet diplomacy in a situation like this can achieve a damn thing."
Parsons and others cited the first U.S. vote in five years against Israel in the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday as an indication that the Reagan Administration might still be willing to take political risks in resolving the conflict.
"The pressure might not fall on stony ground," Parsons said.
While France's relations with Israel have been troubled in recent years, and history would appear to prevent West Germany from playing a significant role in resolving the dispute, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has carefully nurtured Britain's relations both with Israel and with the Arab states during her years in power.
In May, 1986, she became the first British prime minister ever to visit Israel, and she invariably meets with Jordan's King Hussein during his frequent personal trips to Britain.
As the longest-serving leader among the major Western democracies, and facing no domestic threat to her power, analysts speculate that she could be motivated to exert pressure for a settlement.