MOSCOW -- Sitting down together for the first time in decades of hostility, Israel and 11 Arab states have turned from the old, stinging political rhetoric to neighborly discussions about issues as prosaic as water resources and phone lines.
Although Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian delegation continued to boycott the two-day, multilateral Middle East peace talks, participants said at the close of the conference yesterday that it had nonetheless managed to launch the long, slow process of breaking down barriers.
"If you want to argue that in two or three days we've solved all our problems, you're wrong," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said. "Are we satisfied? Yes!"
In the most critical of the day's meetings among five working groups, the committee on regional security managed to agree on a series of arms-control seminars by Russian, European and American officials to teach their Mideast counterparts how it is done.
Participants said that the group would first work solely on education about arms control, and then begin to develop confidence-building measures that could eventually include the equivalent of Middle East hot lines, joint patrols and inspections.
They acknowledged that actual cuts in the region's enormous stockpiles of arms were a very long way off.
Officials who attended other working groups on Middle Eastern economic cooperation, ecology, water resources, and even the politically loaded problem of refugees also reported no-nonsense atmospheres. All of the groups agreed to meet again this spring.
However, the absence of the Syrians and Lebanese, two of Israel's key adversaries, cast doubt on how great an impact the peace process could have. And the dispute over the Palestinian delegation cast a pall that began Tuesday, when the conference opened without them, and continued into the second day despite initial hope of a compromise.
Palestinian leaders met with Secretary of State James A. Baker III for more than an hour yesterday, but there was no report of a resolution to the problem.
The Palestinians failed to gain permission from the conference's co-sponsors, the United States and Russia, to change the composition of their delegation. They insisted on adding Palestinians from Jerusalem and from the exiled communities to those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who attended the opening peace conference in Madrid last October.
Israel had refused to deal with any Palestinians except those from the occupied territories, and the Palestinians accepted those limitations before going to Madrid.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi argued that the conference made little sense without her delegation, "since the Palestinians, in a sense, have the key to the stability in the region."