Washington. -- After 10 rounds of Middle East peace talks over 20 months, there's an open secret Washington cannot ignore: Despite all the words spoken, the talking must not stop even for a week, or the whole process could unravel.
"We need an ongoing stream of activity," one administration official close to the talks said as the last round concluded. "We can't have a period between negotiating sessions here that is marked by no real activity."
Without a near-constant Middle East dialogue, the official said, even a three-week gap in talks can be fatal: "There's a tendency to see whatever headway you're making just kind of dissipate."
Even this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged there has not been much headway to report.
The 10th round of talks, which ended the week before last, turned into a daily minuet of frustration, with representatives of Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon walking into the State Department each morning and out each afternoon, reporting a cordial atmosphere but no progress.
An informal paper -- the United States balks at calling it anything so important as a document -- setting out American ideas for reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians found favor with none of the parties.
And Washington, for its part, expressed open dissatisfaction with the pace of the talks and said some of the negotiators lacked the political authority to stray from familiar positions toward a real deal for peace.
The other U.S. role has been to act as interpreter between the parties in these bilateral talks, the official said.
"What they [the negotiators] hear is not what they then come to believe," the official said. "We spend a lot of time saying, 'Look, that's not what they said, that's not what they meant.' "
In the face of such fractiousness, the State Department this past week launched a two-pronged diplomatic move:
* Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, who will be U.S. ambassador to Israel by year's end, is headed for Moscow to discuss the negotiations with Russia, which is co-sponsoring the talks along with the United States.
* At the same time, Dennis Ross, a key diplomatic aide to former Secretary of State James Baker who has been elevated to "ambassador" status as he acts as special coordinator for Middle East peace talks, is headed for the region.
And Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who met with
Jordan's King Hussein during the last round of talks and spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has said he would travel to the Middle East if such a trip would be productive.
State Department officials are reluctant to predict any results from these visits, but they suggest that these high-ranking diplomats may be able to keep the focus on the Middle East peace process to fan whatever momentum exists.
The only deadline set by Washington is a vague one: Officials have been calling 1993 "a year of breakthrough" in the peace process, and the administration official considers the six-month deadline simply pragmatic.
"The process is not an end in itself," the official said. "It has to be able to produce something. The parties won't be able to sustain involvement in it if it doesn't produce something, so a six-month time frame is a realistic one."
And in spite of the public doom-saying, officials privately report the kind of intangible changes that may lead to tangible progress.
"One thing that has happened: [the negotiators] know each other much better than they did before, and their ability to understand what is being said and see it more in the light that could be realistic is much different than it was," the official said.
"That's something that's very hard to measure . . . but it's one of the intangibles that's necessary to take place if this is to be
Deborah Zabarenko wrote this analysis for the Reuter news agency.