The Process Resumes

AFTER yet another delay, it appears the Middle East peace talks will resume next Monday. The first order of business will be removal of the procedural barrier that prevented the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators from ever getting into the meeting room the last time they were in Washington.

The sticking point was whether the Palestinians should talk directly to the Israelis instead of through a joint delegation with the Jordanians.

Palestinians wanted recognition of their independent status. But Israel's delegates saw an attempt to lay the groundwork for consideration of the issue of Palestinian statehood.

A compromise, starting out with the joint delegation then breaking into sub-group talks between Israelis and Palestinians, is probable. But that doesn't necessarily mean the delegates will then get down to substance.

The political environment surrounding the talks make it likely that procedural hang-ups will pop up regularly. The Bush administration's decision on the Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help resettle immigrants hangs over the peace proceedings. Will the US lay down tough conditions before going ahead with the guarantees? One approach, put forward by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, would reduce the loan package by every dollar spent on settlements in the occupied territories.

Some kind of "conditionality" is needed, and Arab negotiators may be inclined to go slow until they see what the US does.

Another big political factor is the shaky condition of the Israeli government. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is regularly threatened with defections from his coalition. He could decide to let the government fall, then go before the Israeli electorate with a new platform that would stress Israeli nationalism and focus attention on US efforts to prod Israel toward policy changes rejected by Israel's right wing.

Still, both Israel and the Arabs have too much at stake to allow the talks to collapse. The Pales-tinians, for instance, recognize these talks may present their last best chance to negotiate some kind of genuine self-government. Shamir's government, for all its hard-line positions, doesn't want to see Israel saddled with the blame for thwarting the talks.

The talks, therefore, will probably continue despite procedural sparring - and despite the violence on the streets back in the Middle East as extremists on both sides do what they can to undermine any move toward compromise and peace.

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