MADRID, Spain -- Israeli and Arab delegations met face-to-face yesterday, opening a new chapter in Middle East history. Israel and the Palestinians agreed to talk further about self-government for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The negotiations yesterday took place only after Syria, Lebanon and Israel played hide-and-seek over where and when to meet.
Israelis and a joint delegation of Palestinians and Jordanians broke with a long tradition of avoiding each other by holding two formal sessions that began and ended with handshakes. The parties showed that sitting together would not inevitably lead to discord and expressed near certainty that more talks would be held.
No less significant were two other sessions involving Israel, one with a delegation from Syria, the other with a delegation from Lebanon. But those meetings were partly overshadowed by a series of harsh statements and diplomatic brinkmanship that for a time threatened to prevent the meetings from getting under way.
Israel, Syria and Lebanon disagreed over when and where their meetings were to begin and did their utmost to blame the other side, leveling accusations of deviousness and bad faith.
That they finally did meet was a result of efforts by the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to persuade Syrian President Hafez el Assad to drop most of his objections over procedural details. Diplomats said Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Saudi King Fahd and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak intervened with Mr. Assad.
Despite their problems, the parties kept to the schedule established by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who had asked the parties to open the direct, bilateral talks four days after the start of the conference that began here Wednesday. In the end, the deadline was met -- with about 90 minutes to spare in the case of Syria.
Of the three sets of talks -- all held behind closed doors -- the most successful were those between Israel and the combined delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians. Both sides spoke of "a good, businesslike atmosphere" and said consultations would continue on the time and place for later talks. They expressed optimism that those subsequent talks might begin within three weeks.
"We'll find the appropriate ways," said Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli negotiating team. "The fact that these negotiations are taking place is a real sign of good will."
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians quickly agreed to negotiate on two separate issues, despite Israel's having insisted it wanted to devote the initial meeting only to discussing the time and place for future meetings.
Israel and Jordan are trying to negotiate a formal peace treaty, and Israel and the Palestinians are to begin talks about Israel's granting limited self-government to the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
To begin the process, the Palestinians submitted a statement asking Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the territories. Israel made no formal response.
Syria and Israel, however, ended their talks early today without making any progress, said Yossi Ben-Aharon, head of the Israeli delegation.
He said the five hours of talks were "not fruitful at all. . . . We did not agree on anything." But he said the two sides hoped to resume discussions later.
If there are to be any multilateral talks during the next several days, the parties apparently are determined that the sessions be entirely out of public view.
Israeli delegates say they will leave Madrid today, and the Palestinians say they might leave tomorrow. But Mr. Baker, who left Madrid last night, said his senior aides will remain here.
Mr. Baker expressed satisfaction with the results, saying the talks between Israel and the Palestinians had a better beginning than he expected. "In terms of a start, I have to tell you I was very pleasantly surprised," he said.
The United States and the Soviet Union, as co-sponsors of the peace talks, were prepared to suggest the site and ground rules for the next set of negotiations if the parties fail to reach agreement on their own, he said.
The co-sponsors would be ready to submit proposals, "and indeed we do have some we've thought about," Mr. Baker said at a news conference that began as soon as he was told that the Israelis and Syrians had shown up for their own talks, which began about 12 hours late.
Under the original U.S. plan, three sets of negotiations were to begin at separate locations at 10 a.m.: Israeli negotiators would meet separately with Syria, Lebanon and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Only one out of the three events went as the Americans intended. A 10-member team of Israelis, along with five Jordanians and five Palestinians arrived on schedule at the Parcent Palace, the Ministry of Justice building in central Madrid. They stayed there 2 hours and 20 minutes, took a break and returned for 2 hours and 45 minutes more in the afternoon.