WASHINGTON -- With the United States, the Arab nations and Israel in agreement on the idea of a peace conference, the biggest obstacle still to be overcome is that of who will represent the Palestinians.
During his six-day Mideast trip last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was able to smooth over several key impediments to a conference, effectively putting the toughest issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict aside until talks get under way.
But U.S. officials say there is still "a long way to go" before President Bush can launch what they hope is an event that drastically alters Middle East politics.
"This is going to be, at times, probably a roller-coaster," a senior -- official said.
For the parley to proceed, a delegation needs to be formed that Israel won't reject and that Palestinians won't consider a sellout.
Accomplishing that is expected to be the focus of intense diplomacy in the coming days as the United States tries to wring concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir while enlisting Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to intercede with the Palestinians.
The United States, Israel and several Arab states are in agreement on refusing to deal with the current leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but leaders of the Israeli-occupied territories have yet to agree to operate outside the PLO.
In addition, Israel refuses to accept anyone from East Jerusalem, believing that to do so would open up the searing issue of its control over the entire city.
Officials there say this rules out, for one, Feisal Husseini, a prominent Palestinian closely linked to the PLO and one of the leaders who has met twice in recent weeks with Mr. Baker.
A Mideast expert close to the Bush administration describes Palestinian representation at the conference as the "thorniest" issue to be resolved.
"Without a formula for the resolution of that, [the conference] won't happen," he said.
Whether the matter can be settled could be a test of Palestinian flexibility and the Shamir government's sincerity in pushing for a peace conference.
Since Mr. Baker left Jerusalem Thursday, Israel has reaffirmed its determination to continue expanding settlements in the occupied territories, bolstering the view of skeptics that the Shamir government isn't serious about pursuing the peace process.
"Is this a complicating factor? Yes," a senior State Department official said with obvious understatement.
But senior officials, while planning to keep pressure on Israel to block Housing Minister Ariel Sharon's huge new building plans, are resigned to Israel's policy on continued settlements.
"Do you want to suggest to me a method for ending settlement activity in Israel? Because if you've got a solution, I'd be happy to take it under advisement," a frustrated official told reporters Wednesday.
In agreeing to proceed toward a conference, Israel and Arab leaders, working through the United States, have agreed to skirt the fundamental issue of trading land for peace.
Administration officials say the peace conference, and bilateral talks to follow, will be held on the basis of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel to yield occupied territory seized in the 1967 war in return for secure borders.
But each side is sticking to its own interpretation of what the resolutions mean.
Israel insists the resolutions don't mean "all" territory, and argues that it has already largely complied by yielding the Sinai to Egypt.
The Arabs demand that Israel withdraw from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
While agreeing to a conference, Arabs and Israelis have both laid out conditions on terms that will require further talks and probably another trip by Secretary Baker.
As the prospect of peace talks advanced last week, little progress was evident on so-called "confidence-building measures" -- such as a reopening of Palestinian universities or an easing of the Arab economic boycott of Israel -- that U.S. officials hope will pave the way for talks.
Israel has begun releasing 1,200 Palestinian prisoners, but the .. Jewish state has made similar gestures before.