WASHINGTON -- Palestinians are digging in their heels in peace talks with Israel just at the moment when the opportunity seems ripe for real gains.
In public statements, spokesmen repeatedly have invoked their long-term goal of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, even though negotiations were specifically designed to exclude these issues from the current, interim phase of talks.
"We are going to talk about Jerusalem and we are going to insist on Jerusalem and nothing is going to happen unless we get back our Jerusalem," the Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, told a weekend conference here.
Yesterday, the team added a new caveat: Ms. Ashrawi said that before negotiations move forward, Israel should reaffirm that it is conducting the talks on the basis of the two United Nations land-for-peace resolutions, 242 and 338.
pTC The Palestinian stance has frustrated American officials, who had set the target of an interim agreement by the end of next month and now see the Palestinians as doing themselves more harm than good.
Heavy involvement by State Department officials has failed to spur progress, raising the prospect of intervention by White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, who as secretary of state launched the peace process.
It has helped thrust Israeli-Syrian talks into the spotlight, to the surprise of many, as the most promising set of negotiations.
And it flies in the face of what other Arabs see as a unique opportunity: the combination of a relatively dovish Israeli government and an "even-handed" American government acting as sponsor of the talks.
From early in the post-Gulf War peace process in the spring of 1991, Palestinians had seemed the most desperate to engage in negotiations to end what they saw as advancing Israeli annexation, and they agreed with Mr. Baker that they had the most to lose by not joining in.
They braved personal and political threats from extremists and succumbed to Israeli demands that excluded from the talks not only the Palestine Liberation Organization, their leadership body, but Palestinians from East Jerusalem and from outside the occupied territories.
And they did so despite every indication from the Likud government that it would make few, if any, concessions.
Like much of the Arab world, they welcomed the arrival of the Rabin government, which set a high priority on reaching a deal with Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Since the election, however, Palestinians have voiced disillusionment.
The Israeli Labor Party, Ms. Ashrawi said, "is much better at packaging and much better at presenting a public image and, in a sense, much better at convincing the world that it has substance when it deals only with appearance."
This is just a partial explanation, however. Signs of disorganization and inexperience in negotiations are evident. So a struggle between the subject of the current talks -- interim self-government -- and their aspirations for a sovereign state.
"You have academics, idealists and revolutionaries and you're trying to make diplomats out of them," an Arab diplomat said.
"They're busy covering their flanks all the way around," said James Zogby, executive director of the Arab-American Institute, and are having a hard time figuring out what will be "sellable" at home.
American agreement to provide $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel despite absence of a complete freeze on settlements deprived Palestinians of leverage, he said.
"The Palestinians are saying: 'What we need are fundamental assurances that give us guarantees of legitimacy'," Mr. Zogby said.
An Arab diplomat described the demand for a renewed Israeli affirmation of resolutions 242 and 338 as an effort to give their negotiations legitimacy, so that in reaching an interim deal they won't be signing away their long-term goal of sovereignty.