MADRID — Madrid. -- They didn't like each other going in. If anything, they liked each other less going out. And no one changed anyone's mind.
Sound like a formula for peace in the Middle East? Well, it was a start.
The parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict proved this week that when the blows are delivered with words and not with guns and bombs, they all remain standing and can still talk.
Accustomed to speaking about one another in the most venomous terms, they took the torrent of national, personal religious and historical insults with a fair measure of equanimity. No one walked out in anger, although Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir left early by prearrangement.
It was naive to hope for a personality change among the likes of Mr. Shamir and his smoothly vituperative Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. (On Friday, for example, Mr. Sharaa waived a wanted poster of Mr. Shamir and called him a terrorist who "killed peace mediators.")
These men, while never on speaking terms, already knew all about each other, thanks to a history of mutual suspicion and the Middle East's renowned intelligence mechanisms.
And the conflict between their peoples was too enduring and weighed down with religious and territorial grievances to expect anything approaching warmth.
The peace conference in Madrid's ornate Royal Palace was a public forum. As a result, before they got down to serious negotiating, each party had to give a justification for its perceived hostility toward one or more of the others.
That bilateral talks are due to open in Madrid today, even if only to talk about procedure, is a measure of several factors:
* Having wrangled for eight months over process, each of the parties is persuaded that the basis for further talks put together by the United States is at least rational and about as well-balanced as they could hope for.
The formula calls for talks between Israel and Arab states on the basis of U.N. resolutions providing for a trade of territory for peace and secure borders. How much territory and where those borders will be are up to negotiators to work out.
For Palestinians and Israelis, the basis for talks is an interim self-government arrangement followed, after three years, by talks on the final status.
* Pressured to come to Madrid by the United States, each of the parties has reason to continue to feel pressured. The United States remains capable of bringing strong economic leverage on Israel, and now is able to do so with increasing public support.
And the signs of U.S. respect and cooperation displayed toward Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians can quickly be withdrawn, leaving them with nothing to show for having come to Madrid.
* Substantial Arab disunity persists. The rhetorical unanimity on Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory shown this week masked the fact that the Arabs don't trust one another much more than they trust the Israelis.
* Each also sees some potential gain for itself in continuing to negotiate.
Palestinians, with public support from the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union, are in a better position now than before to obtain a halt to Israeli settlement activity, although Israel has given scant reason for hope.
Through interim self-government talks, they also stand to gain a greater measure of individual freedom.
They also, through the dignity of their spokesmen and relative moderation of their rhetoric, have gained through the process so far a strong measure of international recognition.
Israel has gained a degree of regional acceptance of its existence that it didn't have before, and it stands to gain more.
Arabs will continue to be stingy in this regard, believing that withholding acceptance of Israel is their best bargaining chip in the face of Israel's military superiority and enduring security commitment from the United States.
As Mr. Baker has said, handshakes come later. Judging from attitudes on display this week, it will be much later.
Secretary Baker, having brought everyone to Madrid, subtly distanced himself from responsibility should the negotiations go nowhere. He warned the parties Friday that the blame would fall on them.
Still, he will have to remain actively involved if the talks are to get somewhere. Given the level of hostility, outside guidance will be needed to bridge a seemingly endless number of gaps, and no one else has the combination of high-level trust and negotiating creativity to do it.
And this will be only to achieve interim settlements. Arabs and Israelis still seemed a huge distance away from diplomatic relations and peace treaties, let alone the cultural and tourism ties that would cement peace. A comprehensive peace will require negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, an issue of unfathomable difficulty.
The best that can be hoped for in the foreseeable future are security arrangements that prevent fighting. Many more bitter arguments lie ahead.
Mark Matthews is The Sun's diplomatic correspondent.