MADRID, Spain -- Question for aspiring diplomats:
If each delegation to the Middle East peace conference is allowed to make one speech, how many speeches can be made by the delegation that represents both Jordanians and Palestinians?
Up until yesterday, the real diplomats were still thrashing that one out, despite having worked on this and related issues for the last eight months. The Jordanians and Palestinians said their delegation should get two speeches. The Israelis insisted the Jordanians and Palestinians together should get only one.
"There is one delegation, so there should be one of everything," said Yossi Olmert, one of several spokesmen for the Israelis, who are like their counterparts from the Arab world in trying to sound reasonable and persuasive. "I hope it will be resolved."
Last night it was, with an assist from the Americans, who were trying to prevent any of the various parties from tugging on loose threads and unraveling the entire fabric of the conference. Everyone was aware that the success of the talks will be dependent on an occasional wink at bending the rules, and these are days for the most skillful bending.
The United States accepted the argument made by the Palestinians, by guaranteeing the Jordanian-Palestinian two speeches, each of the standard 45-minute length. And to satisfy the Israelis, the conference schedule now includes time for each party to respond to the remarks of the others.
No point of procedure is too small to debate because disagreements over procedure camouflage the larger differences over the nature of an acceptable peace. Give up on the format for speeches, and perhaps you start a process that eventually forces you to give up claims to land -- or so every party fears.
As a result, even the smallest disagreements over procedure are difficult to resolve.
It is still unclear, for example, whether Israel will tolerate an official role being taken by Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian delegation who declared he was representing the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel refuses to have any contact with the PLO and is concerned that Mr. Erakat's presence would compromise that policy.
If all went according to the U.S. plan, the Madrid conference would dissipate some of these worries. Having representatives of Israel, Arab states and Palestinians in the same room is intended to get rid of inhibitions and introduce a little warmth.
The goal is to begin to make peace thinkable by having representatives of each side behave cordially in a public place and to have TV beam the images back to their publics. "It will not in itself create peace," an Israeli newspaper editorialized. "But it will create the psychological conditions without which peace is impossible."
Conference sessions are to take place under the chandeliers of the Room of Columns in the cavernous Royal Palace, the ceremonial home of Spanish kings since the 18th century. Delegates are to sit at a T-shaped table -- although like much else, the final details of the seating arrangement are still being negotiated.
President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are scheduled to address the conference tomorrow after the meeting is opened by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. Representatives of Israel and the Arab parties are to speak Thursday and Friday.
As first announced by U.S. officials, the various parties were to begin face-to-face talks Sunday in Madrid. Those plans now appear to be in doubt, as participants speak of the meetings beginning "by the middle of next week," at a yet unspecified site.
No one is predicting that the talks will be problem-free or even free of walkouts. "The process -- if any -- will be very, very slow," said Abraham Sela, an Israeli political scientist. "There must be crisis after crisis after crisis, and frustration after frustration."