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US Officials See Prospects for Gains In Bilateral Talks

AFTER a false start, it looks as if the second phase of the Mideast peace conference may finally get off the ground this week. But it's not clear whether it will fly very far.Last week was a procedural disaster, with the United States unable to broker even informal Washington meetings between the Arabs and Israel to keep conference momentum going. Neither side appears willing to call off the process, however, and US officials said that the State Department meeting rooms set aside for the talks were still available, 24 hours a day. "We believe the parties want to get together," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler. Israel's delegation was scheduled to arrive in the US yesterday, after refusing to join the Arabs in accepting the American invitation to begin talks Dec. 4. As of this writing it was not certain when talks would resume where they left off in Madrid. The Israelis appear to have agreed informally to a Tuesday opening. The Arabs didn't want to meet today, the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli control of the occupied territories. What direction the conference will take, once it resumes, is another question. The US is hoping that talks - Israeli delegations will meet separately with Syrian, Lebanese, and joint Jordanian-Palestinian counterparts - will quickly dispense with logistical quarrels and get down to substance. There's a better chance for this in some of these bilateral meetings than in others, judge analysts. The Syrians and Israelis, for instance, are unlikely to suddenly begin addressing their differences in a meaningful way. Syria is sticking to the position that it laid out at the Madrid conference opening: Until Israel agrees in principle to withdraw from the Golan Heights there will be no discussion of a formal peace between the two countries. Israel, for its part, says that until Syria agrees in principle to talk about peace there will be no discussion of the Golan. "Neither side buys the other's premise," says Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. There is a chance, however, that the Israelis and the Jordanian/Palestinian delegation will at least talk about the issue of the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied territories seriously. For the Jordanians, the peace talks are a way to get back in the good graces of the US in the aftermath of the Gulf war. For the Palestinians, the talks are the only means in sight for breaking out of the hopeless status quo they find themselves in with respect to the Israeli occupation, and gaining some measure of autonomy. The crucial question here may be whether the Palestinians are willing to accept an agreement on autonomy that isn't explicitly linked to a promise guaranteeing the territories final independent status. "If Israel comes with anything approaching a realistic plan for self-government, I believe [the Palestinians] will want to grab it," says Mr. Satloff. One thing the Israeli and Palestinian sides seem to still be far apart on is the appropriate role of the US in the talks. The Israelis don't want the US involved in the substance of the negotiations. They want direct talks with the Arab groups, alone. Such an approach, they feel, would maximize the diplomatic leverage they have from the fact that they have physical control of the occupied territories. The Palestinians, on the other hand, know they are at a power disadvantage, and want the United States to counterbalance this weakness and push the Israelis toward a settlement. "Effective and active third-party involvement has to be there," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian delegation, at a press conference last week. Ms. Ashrawi accused the US of allowing Israel to stall the progress of the talks. "There is, in a sense, an American withdrawal from the process," she said.