WASHINGTON -- The sixth round of Mideast peace talks closed without any breakthrough yesterday, but on a positive tone that may be a springboard for an October surprise when talks resume just before the U.S. elections.
The Arabs and Israelis "are definitely grappling with tough key issues of territory, peace and security," Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian said at a news conference.
"They're exchanging papers, they're exchanging ideas, they're exchanging formulations. That goes beyond warm and fuzzy," he said when asked whether the progress in the month of talks was a matter of form rather than substance.
The form definitely was less hostile than ever before, as negotiators for the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians gave closing statements keyed to the upbeat, even while saying they made little or no substantive progress.
All looked hopefully to the next round of talks, set to begin Oct. 21, shortly after the Jewish High Holy Days and less than two weeks before the presidential election here.
"We are pinning some hopes on the next round," said Syria's Mowaffak Allaf. "There is promise of a new Israeli policy."
None of the parties will comment in public on the U.S. presidential election, but the Arabs have found the Bush administration more sensitive to their concerns than any other U.S. administration in decades. Some question privately how even-handed Bill Clinton would be as president, especially after reading the pro-Israel Democratic platform.
Israel's new Labor government might prefer a Democratic administration here, but it owes a lot to the Bush policies that played an important role in Labor's victory over the right-wing Likud government.
Analysts and some participants in the negotiations acknowledge there is vague talk about "a present" for Mr. Bush next month -- some achievement that would underscore the president's foreign policy talentsjust before the election.
Itamar Rabinovich, head of the Israeli delegation meeting with Syria, said yesterday that the two sides could have announced agreement on a statement of principles this week, but the Syrians declined.
In the past, Mr. Rabinovich said, negotiators have published such a statement, even if it acknowledges an area of disagreement, "to send a message that they are in the midst of serious and promising negotiations."
Israel and Syria made the most dramatic and unexpected progress during this round, but have yet to turn the key to their conflict.
Syria promises to make peace, but only if Israel agrees to withdraw from all the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 war. Israel promises some manner of withdrawal, but refuses to be explicit until hearing whether Syria will sign a broad-based peace treaty.
And the Palestinians remained far from achieving an agreement with Israel on an interim self-governing authority to run the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.