WASHINGTON -- The vaulted hearing room was readied with drinks, crab dip, sandwiches, egg rolls and desserts Tuesday night as House Foreign Affairs Committee members hosted Arab and Israeli peace negotiators.
Everyone came, but there was a problem: The Palestinian guests included Saeb Erakat, whom the Israelis have refused to recognize as a negotiating partner since he publicly tied himself jTC to the Palestine Liberation Organization last October in Madrid.
So attendance was staggered. Arabs arrived first. When the Palestinians left, the Syrians "hauled ass" out of the room, says an American who was present. Jordanians lingered, but were walking out just as the Israelis arrived through another entrance. Only Egyptian Ambassador El Sayed A. R. el Reedy, whose country is at peace with Israel, stayed behind.
The House members' reception offered a metaphor for the current round of Middle East peace talks, which ended inconclusively last night.
Negotiators have stripped away the procedural barriers to dealing with each other. But the barriers to any kind of free give and take remain, and they are steep.
Palestinians and Israelis have exchanged diametrically opposed visions of interim self-government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Jordanians and Israelis were unable to agree on terms to craft an agenda for talks on a bilateral peace treaty. Talks between Israelis and Lebanese are hung up on the Lebanese demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from their country. And Israeli-Syrian talks have bogged down in an acrimonious exchange about Israeli treatment of non-Jews and which side is at fault for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Now that talks have moved from procedure to substance, the gaps between Arabs and Israelis that were glossed over in earlier phases are becoming clearer. And this clarity shows just how tough it will be to bridge them.
Palestinians have proposed an elected self-governing "authority" that would largely assume powers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza now held by the Israeli military, with elections to be held Sept. 29. The plan is laced with challenges to the most rigid Israeli positions.
In a provocative gesture, spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said yesterday that Palestinians would take preliminary steps to carry out their plan once the delegates returned home.
Israelis don't even speak of a self-governing authority. They have proposed self-government "arrangements" that grant Palestinians control over specific functions that affect their daily lives,but no central control, which they fear would imply an eventual state.
"The Palestinian plan makes no bones about the fact [that it provides] for a way station to a Palestinian state," says Robert Satloff, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Israeli plan is quite clear in its negation of statehood.
"The Palestinian plan speaks of powers. The Israeli plan speaks of functions. Looking at the two plans now on the table, it is not clear that the parties are talking about the same issues or have the same goal," he said.
Israelis and Jordanians, likewise, can't agree on the basics.
There are "profound disagreements" on the principles that underlie the whole peace process, said Jordanian negotiator Marwan Mouasher, who cited his Israeli counterparts as saying U.N. resolutions that form the basis of the talks are "of limited value."
With Israel refusing to acknowledge the principle of withdrawal and referring to "disputed" rather than "occupied" territory, it is difficult to talk about other issues, he said.
Lebanon says it can't undertake contractual arrangements until it is stable and healthy, and that this can't happen while part of its territory remains under Israeli occupation.
Israel, focusing on the security of its northern border, is demanding the disarming of Shiite and Palestinian militias in southern Lebanon and withdrawal of Syrian forces.
As for Syrian-Israeli talks, "the fourth round ended without progress," Syrian negotiator Mowaffac Allaf announced yesterday.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, shifting his role from that of midwife of the negotiating process to stern parent, called in the heads of each delegation yesterday for a progress report, but he has yet to intervene substantively.
With substantive negotiations proceeding slowly, procedure has intervened once again: Arabs say they want the talks to resume again in Washington and have not yet come forward with a list of alternate sites requested by the United States. Israelis are pressing to shift the talks closer to the Middle East.