WASHINGTON -- Next week's Middle East peace conference in Madrid is shaping up as an unprecedented public airing of the region's most deep-seated grievances.
The stage was set for harsh posturing yesterday when Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization, meeting in Damascus, agreed on a united stand on their aims in any comprehensive settlement.
Speaking for all the Arabs going to the conference, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said, "The main aims are to ensure Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territory, including Jerusalem, to halt Israeli settlement immediately and to ensure the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people."
The hardening of the Arab stance coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's decision to pre-empt his relatively dovish foreign minister, David Levy, and lead the Israeli delegation himself.
Mr. Shamir, who personifies Israel's refusal to yield an inch of occupied territory, is expected to put his own trusted hard-line aides in charge of bilateral negotiations with Arab states and Palestinians, rather than professional diplomats from the Foreign Ministry.
These two developments capped a week that saw Palestinians linked with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the PLO itself, assuming a high public profile on the fringes of next week's talks, ensuring that their eventual goal of Palestinian statehood will draw wide attention.
The developments of the day were the latest in a round of angry rhetoric among the parties that began with Mr. Sharaa's insistence that he would not even shake hands with his Israeli counterpart.
A Bush administration official in Washington said the Unite States faced a challenge of making sure that it "doesn't get out of hand."
Underscoring pressure on Arab delegations to assume a toug posture was yesterday's revolt within the PLO against Chairman Yasser Arafat's acceptance of the peace conference.
About 300 PLO guerrillas seized the command headquarters o the Fatah faction in Sidon, Lebanon, and most of the rest of the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, the Associated Press reported. The camp, with at least 33,000 refugees, is the largest of 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Fatah is the mainstream faction of the PLO founded by Mr. Arafat.
The senior Bush administration official, while not ruling out the possibility that the conference could produce an angry walkout, said it was unlikely.
"At this point there's more than a little momentum, and th various parties have clearly calculated that it makes sense to be there," he said in a briefing for a group of reporters. "People understand what the parameters are of acceptable behavior.
"You've got to keep in mind constantly that every one of these delegations is playing to multiple audiences," the official said. "You've got to expect a lot of posturing, a lot of symbol-waving."
This stems partly from nervousness over what the official said he expects will be a changed landscape.
"The Middle East will not be the same. It will clearly be a changed place because of this. [The conference] creates a baseline or foundation for Middle East diplomacy."
Still, the advance hard-line stances seem to undercut administration hopes for a psychological breakthrough. U.S. officials instead will be working to keep the rhetoric under control.
Israel has threatened to bolt if the Palestinians state publicly that they represent the PLO, with which Israel refuses to negotiate.
Given the stakes Palestinians have in direct talks with Israel, and the relationship key West Bank leaders have developed with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, it seems unlikely that they will try to provoke an Israeli walkout. But they will use the occasion to advance their nationalist cause, something Israel has consistently rejected, and their claim to East Jerusalem.
The United States, which does not support a Palestinian state, wants talks on the final status of the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, put off until well into the future, with the first year's negotiations dealing only with an interim autonomy arrangement.
While many Israelis support ceding territory for peace, the country appears united in keeping an undivided Jerusalem as its capital.
As for Mr. Shamir's presence, the administration official said that "what really matters is what the prime minister says." He expressed hope that "people use the session to evidence that there's been some change in attitude, some change in thinking and a readiness to change behavior."
Mr. Sharon's appearance could be seen as demonstrating Israeli seriousness, the official said, since whatever he says will be authoritative. Mr. Levy, who has announced he will stay home, has suffered public humiliation in the past from Mr. Shamir, who personally conducted all the serious pre-conference negotiations with Secretary Baker.