WASHINGTON — THE meal is ready and the table is set. But, once again, some of the guests are going to be late.
Last month Israel boycotted the scheduled starting date for peace talks with its Arab neighbors to protest what it said was the Bush administration's unilateral decision to make Washington the venue.
This month, the late arrivals will be the Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians.
Angered by Israel's announcement Thursday that it will deport 12 alleged Arab militants from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Jordanians said they would not attend the opening of Round 2 of the bilateral talks here, which was scheduled to begin tomorrow.
The other four Arab participants announced over the weekend that they, too, were delaying their appearance.
Although the Palestinians are expected to join the talks eventually, the furor over the planned deportations has again demonstrated the fragility of the peace process, launched two months ago in the latest attempt to end 43 years of Arab-Israeli strife.
It has further depleted the small reservoir of optimism created during last October's opening ceremonies in Madrid.
"There was euphoria in the region after Madrid. People thought this was the right thing to do," says Marwan Muasher, a member of the Jordanian delegation.
"Now there's a very pessimistic feeling. There's a feeling that Israel is stalling and that the US is not as serious about the process." Deportation protested
"No event in the Middle East has made things look more promising since the talks broke off last month," acknowledges Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Thursday's deportation announcement, which drew a sharp protest from the US Department of State, was issued after the killing Thursday of a 35-year-old Jewish settler in Gaza. He was the fourth settler to be killed by Arabs since the Madrid opening, a measure of the increasing Arab-Jewish tension that has accompanied the recently stepped-up pace of settlement activity in the territories.
Palestinian spokesmen in Jerusalem announced Friday that they would await the decision of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as to whether and when to travel to Washington. Although the PLO is not officially represented at the peace talks, it has considerable influence on the Palestinian delegates, all of whom are residents of the territories.
Palestinians have demanded that, as sponsor of the peace talks, the United States force Israel to revoke the deportation orders to clear the way for the resumption of the talks. On Friday the State Department condemned the orders and urged Israel to "reconsider and rescind its decision," which the US regards as a violation of international law pertaining to military occupation.
Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese delegates have also postponed their departure to Washington to protest the planned expulsions.
Israel met in separate, first-ever talks with three Arab delegations last month to launch Phase 2 of the peace process. Negotiations with Syria and Lebanon were correct, but quickly bogged down over conflicting territorial claims.
Meanwhile, the Israeli and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations haggled the whole time, in a State Department corridor, over procedure. Tensions increased
In addition to the deportation orders, Arab-Israeli tensions have been exacerbated by Israel's decision, announced last week, to construct 5,500 new housing units in the territories during 1992. Like the deportation orders, the move is seen as a concession to radical right-wing parties that hold the balance of power in Israel's fragile, Likud-led coalition government.
Israeli sources insist that the two measures must be seen in the light of internal Israeli politics and not as an attempt to torpedo the peace process.
But such fine distinctions are lost on Palestinians, who are expected to table a demand for a settlements freeze once peace talks resume. The question will be whether the call for a freeze "will come in the context of negotiations or as a condition to negotiations," notes Dr. Satloff.
When and if the talks reconvene, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will have to resolve a procedural dispute over whether Jordanians and Palestinians should be treated as separate parts of a unified delegation. Though technical in nature, the issue goes to the heart of whether the ultimate outcome of the peace process will be an independent Palestinian state, which Israel adamantly opposes.
If disputes over procedure can be resolved, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will turn their attention to the substantive matter of defining the terms of an interim period of limited self-rule for Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"If the teams come back to Washington facing the same old problems, and if they engage in another futile round of 'corridor diplomacy,' I don't think Palestinian opinion can sustain that," says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans.