WASHINGTON — THE Middle East peace process is like an old car making its way along a washboard road. It's being jolted by lots of diplomatic bumps, but somehow it keeps on going.
Negotiators for Israel and its Arab neighbors have gathered in Washington for today's resumption of bilateral talks, but not before more sharp exchanges over the latest bump - Israel's decision to deport a dozen Palestinian activists charged with killing four Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Although the deportation announcement prompted the Arab delegations to delay their arrival for nearly a week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators say they are eager to get beyond the procedural squabbling that marred Round 1 of the bilateral negotiations. Diplomatic analysts expect few major developments. They describe this week's session, which is expected to adjourn Wednesday, as just one link in a chain of talks that could go on for years.
"The headline for these talks, as for the last talks, is neither breakdown nor breakthrough," says Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The peace process began in Madrid in October, then moved to Washington last month for the first round of substantive discussions. So far, Israel's negotiations with Lebanon have shown the greatest promise. But Israeli and Syrian negotiators quickly reached an impasse over conflicting claims to the Golan Heights, while Israel and members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation never got past a dispute over whether the Palestinians should be recognized by Israel separately.
Clearing this procedural hurdle would open the way for serious bargaining on Palestianian self-rule and could set the peace process on a stable course for the long-term negotiations that lie ahead. The Palestinians will be aided this time by the presence of Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat. Mr. Shaath was barred from entering the US during the December round of talks because of his PLO connections.
This time the United States Department of State waived its visa restriction, ostensibly to allow Shaath to address a conference in Washington.
Though technically an adviser to and not a member of the Palestinian delegation, Shaath is expected to lend the authority and direction to the delegation that it lacked during the December round.
Shaath's presence is also the latest manifestation of the growing though still indirect role in the peace process assumed by the PLO, despite Israel's objections. Faced with increasing public skepticism in the West Bank and Gaza about the talks - skepticism fueled by the planned deportations and ambitious Israeli settlement plans in the West Bank - the Palestinian delegation openly deferred to the PLO before announcing its decision to return to Washington.
"The Palestinians wanted cover. The PLO wanted participation. They used each other," says the Washington Institute's Robert Satloff.
The peace process has also partly restored Mr. Arafat's personal standing with Arab leaders he alienated by supporting Iraq during the Gulf war, notably Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But Arafat has won no backing among his Arab colleagues for the idea of having a separate PLO seat at multilateral talks on regional issues - the next phase of the US-sponsored peace process - which are scheduled to begin in Moscow later this month.
Today's negotiations will resume the first face-to-face peace talks since the Arab-Israeli crisis began 43 years ago.
In the end, the dynamic that is likely to keep the peace process going, despite seemingly endless complications, is the fact that no party will profit from an early breakdown.
For Lebanon, the talks offer the chance to negotiate an end to Israel's decade-long military presence inside its southern frontier. Jordan supports the talks because they will eventually focus on the pressing issues of economic development and water shortages. For Syria, notes Dr. Indyk, the talks provide a way of repairing relations with Washington, even as they tax relations between the US and Syria's main adversary, Israel.
The peace talks are also an important way for Israel to sustain close relations with Washington, while, for the Palestinians, they offer the last hope of securing self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza against an advancing tide of Jewish settlement.