Madrid Talks Lack Sparks, But Are 'Cerebral, Positive'

ARABS and Israelis meeting here over the past two days have not suddenly escaped the burden of their history.But hints have surfaced suggesting that they are taking the chance offered by their unprecedented meeting to begin to untie some of the knots of conflict that have bound them for so long. The surprising lack of drama that has marked the first two days of talks may have disappointed those expecting fireworks in the first-ever direct confrontation between Israel and all her Arab neighbors. But it reassured other participants and observers, who saw in the restrained mood an indication that realism may prevail over exaggerated hopes on all sides about the outcome of the conference. (Eloquent appeals, page 6.) "Before we can walk, we've got to crawl ... and today we've begun to crawl," United States Secretary of State James Baker III said on Wednesday. That cautious assessment contrasted with Mr. Baker's earlier hopes, expressed often in recent months by his advisers, that the mere fact of sitting all the parties in conflict at the same table would change the Middle East. "Don't call this a conference," said one of Baker's top aides last April. "What we are looking for is a mind-altering event." Delegates from all sides who have felt the mood in the Salon of Columns in Madrid's ornate Royal Palace, where the conference is taking place, say such a spark is missing. The atmosphere, said Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez, has been "cerebral rather than passionate," as each team has carefully weighed the others' words. For Israeli spokesman Yossi Amihud, the feeling at the opening sessions has been "positive, but not euphoric." The room where all the negotiating teams are meeting, richly carpeted and hung with Gobelin tapestries, is not large, and the delegations are tightly packed. That background, said Sarah Doron, deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of the Israeli team, "is a good setting, because it gives you the feeling that history is being made." Negotiators from all parties agree that the historic significance of the meeting is palpable. But the reluctance of the Arab delegates to look the Israelis in the eye is also clear, and if some analysts had expected the meeting to spark a qualitative change in regional relationships, the event itself has been dominated by talk of how long the peace process is going to take if it is to bear fruit. "It will take time," US President Bush warned in his opening speech. "Indeed it should take time - time for parties so long at war to learn to talk to one another, to listen to one another." Jordanian Foreign Minister Kamal Abu Jaber agreed. "This is going to be a long and tedious process," he told journalists. "It is not going to be solved by one speech." For the Israelis, even though they see the opening conference as no more than a ceremony to launch the bilateral talks they seek, the very fact of Syria's presence across the table marks an implicit recognition of the Jewish state's existence by its fiercest enemy. The opening conference will serve, said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "to habituate the parties and people of the Middle East to the idea of peace." Much the same approach was evident among the Palestinians at the table, who see their presence across from the Israeli delegation as an important symbolic affirmation of their existence as a people. "With the ceremony the psychological barrier is starting to disappear," said Palestinian delegate Sami Kilani. "And it will go on disappearing during the bilateral negotiations." For the Palestinians, with their day-to-day experience of Israeli occupation, sitting with the Israeli team has been relatively easy. "We the Palestinians were the most comfortable in the conference hall, for us it was not a shock or a surprise," said Mr. Kilani. "But for our Arab brothers we saw that they were restrained, they were meeting them [the Israelis] for the first time. The Syrians were on the edge of their chairs," he added. "It was a very tense moment," Kamal Abu Jaber said of the instant on Wednesday morning when he sat down for the first time at the conference table opposite Israeli Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Shamir. "Not fear, not hope, but here is the gentleman who represents a state that over time has meant for us danger, fear, insecurity." On the other side of the table, Ms. Doron was trying to shake the hand of the only other woman present, the Lebanese delegate Isabelle Edde, and being rebuffed. "I had a very unpleasant experience," said Ms. Doron. "This was more than symbolic, this was a rejection not of me as a person, but a rejection of peace." Although some Palestinians and Israelis shook hands as they met before the opening session, there has otherwise been no informal contact between the Israeli and Arab delegations. On the first day, they were all kept together in an anteroom for 30 minutes before being bidden into the conference room. On the second day, they all arrived late, apparently in order to avoid repeating the experience. Such actions speak of the historic mistrust that divides the two sides in the Middle East conflict, but some voices at the table have sought to overcome them. "This is a new page," Abu Jaber insisted. "You may question our concept of a new page, but what is past is past. We don't forgive it, we don't condone it, we don't pass any judgement on it except what is in our hearts. We hope the hatred and the animosity of the past is going to be changed." If this week's conference prompts that change, it will indeed have proved a historic turning point. But when it is over, points out Mohammed Sawalha, a member of the Palestinian team, "the difficult part is yet to come. What matters is what happens on the ground."

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