MIDDLE EAST : The Talks Plod On, Marked by Much Posturing, Little Progress : Contacts are expected to be resumed in January. However, prospects are dim unless Israel and the Arabs take new tacks.


In the already laborious Middle East peace talks, which adjourned a second round in Washington this week, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians appear set on trying to gain early, sweeping concessions from their adversaries, a maneuver that is leading to much posturing and little progress.

Three teams of Israeli negotiators are expected to resume contact sometime in January, probably in Washington, with representatives of Syria, Lebanon and, in a tandem grouping, Jordan and the Palestinians. If the talks hold to form, the Palestinians will try to squeeze from Israel some form of recognition of their claim to statehood. Israel will probably continue its relentless campaign to get Syria, its most powerful enemy, to accept Israel as a legitimate neighbor. And Syria will try to obtain a firm commitment from Israel to return all of the Golan Heights.

These questions are very much at the heart of the negotiations, and the efforts to resolve them in a stroke have paralyzed the whole process. Since the talks are designed to run in parallel tracks, little can be accomplished between Israel and, for example, the Jordanians without progress in Israel’s talks with Syria.

For the Palestinians, recognition of their “identity,” one of the many code words for future statehood, has become a kind of a desperate quest raised in importance by the need to show results to their constituents. With the Israeli government still putting up settlements in the occupied territories, the Palestinians are putting little stock in discussions about day-to-day transfer of minor functions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--schools, hospitals, garbage collection.


So rather than accompany the Jordanian negotiators into one room to meet Israel, the Palestinians stayed in the hallway, where their delegation leader, Haidar Abdel Shafi, held couch conversations with the Israeli representative, Elyakim Rubinstein.

“We came to negotiate as equals,” said Hanan Ashrawi, the telegenic spokeswoman for the Palestinians. “They came to delay and play tricks.”

The Palestinians have fielded a 14-member delegation not of key decision-makers or experts but of regional appointees meant to cover as wide a constituency as possible. “This is not a delegation,” said a Palestinian political analyst. “This is purely a representation.”

Among the leading examples of what some have called excess baggage is Elias Freij, the Bethlehem mayor who stands in for business interests in his hometown, a major tourist city, but who is mistrusted by the other Palestinians on the delegation and most of the young activists engaged in the Arab uprising back home.


Another is Saeb Erakat, a newspaper editor and college educator from Jericho who appears to have no other function but to let everyone know that the delegation represents the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is banned from a direct role in the talks. “His portfolio is to say . . . PLO over and over again,” said a Western diplomat.

A broad representation is necessary, Palestinians say, because the debate over the wisdom of going to the talks has yet to be resolved. “When they came back from Madrid, the delegates were still trying to convince everyone this is a good idea. It may be more difficult,” said a Palestinian analyst.

Israel already won recognition from the Palestinians, who came into the talks agreeing to hold face-to-face talks with Israel, their old nemesis, on limited self-rule as a first step to peace. As a result, such symbolism is no longer a central concern for Israel. But it’s another matter with Syria, whose delegates are squirming over having to sit in the same room with the Israelis.

Israeli delegates spent much of the week pointing out how uncompromising the Syrians were. They upbraided their longtime foes for voting against the United Nations repeal of the Zionism-is-racism resolution earlier this week.


“The background of Syria’s attitude towards Israel, its rejection of the Jewish state--all this needs to be addressed before we talk on the substance of a peace agreement,” said Yosef Ben-Aharon, head of the Israeli panel.

That substance does not include giving up the Golan Heights, which the conservative government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is committed to keeping.

For their part, the Syrians have complained about the Israeli unwillingness to return captured land in conformity with guidelines of U.N. Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 Middle East War, when the Golan and other strategic territory changed hands.