WASHINGTON. — Washington -- In diplomacy as in law, process is often substance. What seemed like mere procedural wrangles in the Washington round of the Mideast peace process were in fact substantive matters of the greatest importance. Among these, the following questions loomed large:
* Can the Bush administration ''deliver'' Israel?
When the date and place of the second round of meetings that began in Madrid were communicated to Israel, on short notice and without prior consultation, the Israeli government balked. Israel and others saw it as a test. Would Israel, whose relations with the Bush administration have seriously deteriorated, accept less courteous treatment than is normally accorded a traditional friend and ally? Would the administration insist on treating Israel peremptorily and having her respond respectfully, like a colonial power dealing with a dependent?
Israelis were accused of being prickly and petty when they rejected the December 4 meeting date set by Washington and proposed December 9 instead. In fact, the Jewish state was telling Washington and the world that the U.S. could not simply ''deliver'' Israel for any time, place or terms of its choosing.
In refusing December 9 and in proposing the 10th, the Palestinians telegraphed a similar message about how far they would -- and would not -- go to accommodate the Jewish state.
* Who will meet with whom, where?
The Palestinians' demand that their delegation meet separately with Israel on all matters reflects their insistence that Palestine be recognized as a separate sovereign state.
Israel's insistence that it meet first and then from time to time with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, which might then break into ''subcommittees'' of Palestinians and Israelis, reflects the Israeli government's view that the Palestinian problem must be resolved in the context of a relationship with Jordan, not as a negotiation between one Jewish and one Palestinian state.
* Will the delegations honor their agreements concerning process?
The Israeli position on joint delegations also reflects Israel's conviction that agreements must be honored and are not subject to endless renegotiation.
All parties, they say, have agreed to the terms of reference for the peace process which were painstakingly negotiated and spelled out in the U.S. letter of invitation. That letter stated: ''Governments to be invited include Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Palestinians will be invited and attend as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Egypt will be invited to the conference as a participant.''
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman confirmed that ''the terms of reference in the invitation have not changed. Everyone signed up to those terms of reference. And, as you know, the terms of reference were a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.''
For Palestinians to demand that they be treated as a separate state, not part of a joint delegation, is tantamount to reneging on the agreement, as Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it.
* Where should the next phase of the peace talks be held?
In the Israeli view, normalizing relations between Israelis and Arabs means meeting in the areas where Israelis and Arabs normally live -- that is, in the Middle East itself. This is what Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin did in the only successful negotiations ever held between Arabs and Israelis. It is, in their view, the way to give reality to the peace process and the only way to involve the peoples of the region in that process.
Arabs have so far refused to move the talks to the region and find Washington an ideal site, in part presumably because it ensures a prominent U.S. role. Which brings us to another important ''procedural'' question.
* What should that U.S. role be?
Because they see the Bush administration as friendly to the Arab cause, Arab countries who for decades refused to consider meeting with, much less making peace with, Israel were far more responsive to the Bush-Baker initiatives.
Having rejected all mention or reaffirmation of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 for decades, they agreed when U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed to launch a peace process based on these resolutions -- doubtless because they think the Bush administration's interpretation of Resolutions 242 and 338 are closer to their own than those of previous American administrations.
For all these reasons, and because the U.S. president's personal relations with Arab states have been closer than his relations with Israel (which he has never visited), Arab states seek to maximize the U.S. role in the peace process.
Israel, to the contrary, emphasizes that as long as Arab states believe the U.S. government can and will impose an agreement and ''deliver'' Israel, these Arab states have no incentive to make the concessions necessary for peace.