WASHINGTON -- Serious Mideast talks are expected to get under way here tomorrow, testing Arab and Israeli willingness finally to move from procedure to substance.
After boycotting the Dec. 4 opening set by the United States, a large Israeli delegation arrived yesterday prepared to make at least some headway in negotiations with Palestinians and Jordanians, if not with Syrians and Lebanese.
Israel, under pressure to quit stalling, will present Palestinians with a proposal for limited autonomy that would grant them greater control over their daily lives, sources said.
"There've been some private indications that the parties are willing to begin considering and discussing substance," Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Arabs want to avoid meeting today, the fourth anniversary of the Palestinian intifada, as a way of showing that they can't be compelled to meet Israel's timetable. That will allow for a face-saving start for both sides tomorrow.
The talks, however, could quickly return to the procedural wrangling that delayed them in the first place. Israelis, still determined to have negotiations shifted to the Middle East or nearby, have not committed themselves to more than a few days of talks here.
"We'll play it by ear," Yossi Ben-Aharon, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who will lead negotiations with the Syrians, said yesterday. "We'll see how much progress we make over the coming few days, and then we'll decide."
The past week did some damage to Israel's image in the negotiating process and fueled U.S. officials' exasperation.
But Israel's boycott failed to give the Arab side the propaganda advantage they had sought, since it was pushed to the media sidelines by the resignation of White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, the release of hostage Terry Anderson, and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial.
OC This soured the mood in particular of the Palestinians, who had
transformed their public image in the earlier round of talks in Madrid and hoped for continued favorable media attention to maintain pressure on Israel.
Israelis want to demonstrate that they can make progress in talks with Palestinians without U.S. intervention. They also want to get an interim agreement without having to make territorial concessions or freezing settlements.
"We must not mislead the Arabs. . . . Our line is to work towards peace and maintain the land of Israel," Mr. Shamir said Saturday, in a reference to land that includes the occupied territories.
In the month since the Madrid conference, Israel has intensified its crackdown on Palestinians in the occupied territories, renewing curfews, delaying reopening of a university, allowing new settlements and violently suppressing demonstrators, Palestinians complained.
This has had the double-edged effect of making the Palestinians even more desperate for relief while increasing bitterness within the territories that could backfire on the moderates leading the negotiations.
It has also reinforced for Palestinians the need for a strong U.S. role in the talks to compensate for their own weakness against Israel's overwhelming force.
While early progress on the Palestinian and Jordanian fronts is possible, far less is expected from Israeli-Syrian talks. Israelis suspect Syria of being more interested in peace with the United States than with Israel. Syrians, in turn, have gotten no clear sign of Israeli willingness to negotiate over the Golan Heights.
Some Arab diplomats say Syria has an incentive to try to delay progress on the Palestinian front, since it stands to gain more in a comprehensive settlement than on its own. As a result, one said, Syrian President Hafez el Assad has repaired ties with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yassir Arafat, who fears losing influence to leaders inside the occupied territories.
The decline in public attention relieves some of the urgency for the United States and Mr. Baker to push for a breakthrough.
Having invested eight trips to the region and nine months of effort, however, Mr. Baker remains under pressure to justify the effort.
While the American profile may diminish, U.S. officials are expected to fulfill Mr. Baker's earlier pledge to the Arabs to be the "driving force" behind the peace process, using carrots and sticks with both sides.
Mr. Baker said yesterday, however, that the United States had told both sides that it couldn't and wouldn't "deliver Israel."
Having angered Israel by appearing to dictate the site and date of the current talks, the United States has launched an all-out effort to ensure repeal by Dec. 17 of a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
The vote will put moderate Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which had wanted to delay the vote, on the spot, and may prompt them to abstain. If they break with other Arabs to vote for repeal, they stand to lose leverage over those who call repeal a surrender to Israel.
But a vote against repeal would be a slap at the United States, showing that it couldn't influence its Arab allies on a matter of immense symbolic value to Israelis.