WASHINGTON — Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians edged toward compromise Wednesday in their procedural wrangle over the status of the Palestinian delegation as the Middle East peace talks ground along without apparent progress but also without breaking down.
Both sides suggested formulas to paper over the dispute over whether Jordan and the Palestinians will negotiate jointly or separately. Although no agreement was reached, each side made rhetorical concessions that could point the way to a settlement, perhaps as early as today.
While the heads of the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian delegations continued to talk in a State Department corridor about whether the full-scale talks--when they finally begin--will take place in one room or two, Israeli negotiators met separately with Syrians and Lebanese to discuss the substance of the four-decade-long conflict.
Israel's chief foreign policy spokesman, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the Israeli delegation introduced "a framework" of a detailed peace treaty with Lebanon. If adopted, it would lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in exchange for new security arrangements that would prevent attacks against northern Israel from Lebanese territory.
Israeli and Lebanese negotiators reached agreement on a U.S.-brokered peace pact in 1983, but the Lebanese Parliament, under pressure from Syria, refused to ratify it. Although Netanyahu declined to spell out the details, it seems likely that Israel's latest proposal will pick up key elements of the earlier measure.
The Lebanese government today is even more heavily influenced by Syria than it was in 1983, so no one expects an early Israeli-Lebanese agreement.
Meanwhile, Israel and Syria continued to talk although they were unable to break the deadlock over the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War. Syria wants the territory back and says it will discuss other elements of a peace treaty only after Israel agrees to withdraw from the mountain ridge. Israel says it is prepared to negotiate the status of the Golan but only as part of overall peace talks.
"There is no breakthrough yet," Muwaffik Allaf, Syria's chief negotiator, told reporters. "We are discussing but, unfortunately, there is still that (Israeli) insistence on rejecting the principle of land for peace."
Israel's chief delegate, Yosef Ben-Aharon, said: "The Syrians are locked into a rigid position that places emphasis exclusively on the issue of territory. . . . And at the same time, there was a refusal to engage in a discussion of the elements of peace. We want to know if we're going to (have) peace or not."
Netanyahu said Israel maintains that the status of the Golan is negotiable. He said Syria wants to get the territory back without having to negotiate for it. "We'll claim it; they'll claim it," he said. "Then, we'll negotiate."
Nevertheless, U.S. officials insisted that it is remarkable that Israel and Syria, for 44 years the region's most bitter enemies, are sitting at the same table. And although Allaf said Syria will not continue to talk indefinitely, if no progress is recorded, he said his delegation will be back today for another meeting.
Israeli officials, who had said earlier that they intended to wrap up this round of talks this week, now say that they may remain in Washington at least until next week.
In the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian dispute, each side demonstrated new flexibility while insisting that it had made no compromises of principle. Both sides predicted that the matter will be settled soon.
Jordan and the Palestinians want to split their joint delegation into two parts to demonstrate that they represent two separate peoples. The Israelis object to the move because they do not want to give the Palestinians that sort of recognition. Both sides agree that the real issue is whether the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to a state of their own.
Both sides said Wednesday that they are ready for a procedure that would deal with Israeli-Palestinian issues on one track and Israeli-Jordanian issues on another. On the Arab side, the delegation would have a Palestinian majority when discussing Palestinian matters and a Jordanian majority when discussing Jordanian matters. The remaining dispute apparently is over minute details.