WASHINGTON -- Nearly five months in the making, the ninth round of the Mideast peace negotiations ended in anticlimax yesterday despite a last-minute U.S. push to pry tangible gains from the talks on Palestinian autonomy.
The result was a setback for the Clinton administration, which had struggled mightily to get the peace process back on track against a backdrop of rising violence in the Israeli-occupied territories and had promised a more active "full partner" role.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who had predicted progress in this round and expressed hopes for a breakthrough this year, is considering another trip to the region, an administration official said.
The talks resumed three weeks ago after a five-month hiatus that resulted from Israel's deportation of about 400 Palestinians allegedly linked to Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group that violently opposes the peace process.
But the deeper U.S. involvement failed to produce progress in the negotiations, and U.S. officials decided not to reward the negotiators with a meeting with President Clinton.
Particularly shaky were the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, whose delegation is divided and draws weak political support at home as economic conditions there deteriorate with a seal-off of the Israeli border.
In a bid to avert failure, the United States presented a document late yesterday that attempted to bridge the Israeli and Palestinian proposals on self-government in the occupied territories.
But the Palestinians boycotted a meeting at which the United States was to present the proposal to the Israelis and the Arabs, and both sides raised objections that may take some time to resolve.
At issue is the degree of control Palestinians will have over the occupied territories during an interim period. Palestinians also insist that their authority should extend to East Jerusalem. Israel refuses to even discuss the possibility.
The heads of all Arab delegations, in a final news conference yesterday, joined in reporting no progress. The Israelis, usually more upbeat, voiced disappointment.
The Israeli-Syrian talks remained bogged down on the land-for-peace equation. Syria has promised "full peace for full withdrawal" but refuses to define what the peace would consist of until Israel commits itself to yielding all of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch, who doubles as the chief negotiator with Syria, responded to the Syrian commitment yesterday with a pledge of "real" or "genuine" withdrawal, but avoided a full-withdrawal commitment.
So intractable has this chicken-and-egg impasse become that Mr. Rabinovitch called yesterday for stepped-up U.S. efforts to resolve it. This reflected an improved U.S.-Israeli climate under the Labor government in Israel and the Democratic Clinton administration. Previously, Israel had wanted the United States to keep its distance.
There were signs of progress in Lebanon's talks with Israel. But Lebanon, under the strong influence of Syria, likewise demanded an Israeli commitment to withdraw its military from Lebanese territory before making security pledges.
Israel has insisted on reaching security arrangements and a peace agreement before making any move toward withdrawal.
Israel's talks with Jordan could achieve a breakthrough quickly but are blocked by a lack of progress on the Palestinian front.
Putting a positive gloss on the talks, Edward Djerejian, the State Department's top official for the Middle East, reported that "over the last three weeks all the negotiating tracks have demonstrated a deeper discussion of substance and intense engagement."
In a new tack, Mr. Djerejian avoided saying that a specific "round" of talks had "ended," promoting the idea that the peace process has become continuous. General acceptance of the concept of continuous talks would eliminate the arduous negotiations required to get the parties back to the table.
But the Arabs did not adopt his language and said their foreign ministers would meet to decide on the next round, which the United States has set for early in June. And even a negotiator for Israel, which also wants continuous talks, referred to the end of the ninth round.