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Negotiators resume Middle East talks with fading prospects for agreement


JERUSALEM -- Arab and Israeli negotiators begin the seventh round of Middle East peace talks in Washington today hampered by a seeming hardening of positions, an upsurge in clashes in the Israeli-occupied territories and the prospect of change in the U.S. government.

"The odds are not so good today," said Gabi Sheffer, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

A year of talking has produced only symbolic achievements, and concrete agreements seem far off.

The peace talks that began Oct. 30, 1991, in Madrid called for an agreement within one year on autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israeli troops for 25 years. The agreement has not happened.

For a while, optimism shifted to the Syrian negotiations. But progress there, too, has sputtered in a diplomatic game of chicken over who should make the first move: Israel, by agreeing to leave all of the Golan Heights, or Syria, by offering full peace with Israel.

The other two parties in the face-to-face talks, Jordan and Lebanon, have taken a back seat in the process.

"We have all sorts of political and abstract achievements, but we can't point to anything concrete," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation.

Predictably, Arabs and Jews blame each other. Arab negotiators complain that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has done much for show but made few significant changes in Israeli positions since he defeated the hard-line Likud government last June.

For his part, Mr. Rabin has criticized Syria as too timid to make peace with Israel, and lambasted the Palestinians as rudderless and blind to the chances for step-by-step progress.

In a single year, however, the process has produced symbolic achievements, some of them once unthinkable.

The Israelis are negotiating face-to-face with Arab countries, a long-sought goal that implicitly acknowledges they are in the region to stay. Arab countries are talking openly of wanting peace with the country they once vowed to wipe off the map.

On the Arab side, the Palestinians have rescued their cause from the ignominy of backing the wrong side in the gulf war, have

revived the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization, have proven they have articulate leaders, and have glimpsed the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Both sides have been hampered in making more progress by divisions within their ranks.

"The closer each side comes to making fateful decisions, the more factionalism arises," said Aharon Klieman, a professor of International Relations at Tel Aviv University.

Even before any agreement is on the table, Mr. Rabin is being buffeted by Jewish settlers in the north who fear he will give away the Golan Heights, and by a right wing that opposes the limited concessions he has offered.

Mr. Rabin has talked in the past of a "two- to five-year window of opportunity" to achieve peace with the Arabs. But the lease on his own government could be much shorter.

Conflicts within his narrow government coalition have caused him to look for other political alliances, which could limit his leeway at the negotiating table.

"The Israeli government's political time is limited," acknowledged Professor Itamar Rabinovich, who is in charge of the Syrian negotiations.

Similarly, Syrian and Palestinian representatives have squabbled over whether their separate negotiations with Israel jeopardize a united Arab front.

And Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have staged two weeks of demonstrations and clashes, in part over the peace process.

"There are a lot of organizations in the territory who have an interest in putting themselves on the agenda," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli military.

The demonstrations could force a harder line all around. Israel has offered the Palestinians an elected council with limited powers but has refused to discuss full withdrawal from the occupied territories.

The Palestinians have demanded legislative powers for the council, and they insist that negotiations deal with boundaries for what they hope will eventually be a Palestinian state.

Both sides now say it is up to the other to offer concessions.

Optimism was high for progress in the negotiations after Mr. Rabin was elected. The Likud Party's Yitzhak Shamir admitted afterward that he intended to drag out the negotiations for "10 years" while his government settled more Jews in Arab territories.

Mr. Rabin seemed eager for change. He announced a partial freeze on settlements, hustled off to Cairo to enlist Egypt's help in the talks, released Palestinian prisoners, and talked about giving Palestinians wide control over their affairs.

But 100 days later, Palestinians see those moves as shallow gestures and contend there is little change in Israel's negotiating stance.

The U.S. elections also are likely to slow momentum in the negotiations. The peace talks began only after tireless efforts of the U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker III. The increasing possibility that President Bush and Mr. Baker will be replaced may prompt negotiators to wait until they see the attitude of the next administration.

This round of negotiations will last for about 10 days and then recess, not coincidentally, during the week of the U.S. election. The negotiators will return Nov. 9 for another 10 days.

Although Arabs generally were rooting for President Bush, the increasing likelihood of his defeat has forced them to reappraise the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton.

"Everybody will try to test him and say, 'What if he is not so committed, not so real?' They will err on the side of caution," an Arab diplomat said. "At one point or another, Bush and Baker came down hard on everybody."

Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, held out the possibility in a briefing yesterday that Mr. Baker would travel to the region again in a bid to achieve a breakthrough that would form a lasting legacy.

Mr. Clinton espoused a pro-Israel tilt early in the campaign when he faulted the Bush administration for brow-beating Israel while nurturing ties to Syria, and the Democratic Party platform states that Jerusalem is Israel's capital.

Ms. Ashrawi worries that without the pressure from the Bush administration, the talks will falter.

"The peace process has not generated a self-sustaining dynamic yet," Ms. Ashrawi said. "It has become a matter of [U.S.] foreign policy, and nobody can drop it, no matter who is elected. But it's a matter of urgency-- whether it's on the front burner or the back burner."

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