WASHINGTON — THE Middle East peace talks reopen in Washington this week with the United States ready to play a more active role in negotiations than it did during the Bush administration.
In past sessions, US officials and their Russian cosponsors have tried to be disinterested mediators, simply inviting peace-talk participants to use State Department rooms to talk. This was an awkward arrangement - something like having a party in which the hosts go for a stroll when the guests arrive.
But US officials now pointedly talk about playing the role of a full partner. That means they may be prepared to suggest ideas for bridging the distance between Israeli and Arab negotiators on key points.
"The hands-on approach by the United States is going to be the make-or-break factor in the negotiations," judged Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, at a recent discussion of prospects for the peace talks.
That the discussions between Israel and its Arab neighbors - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians - are still going after more than a year and a half is itself reason for optimism.
When they opened after intensive prodding by the Bush administration in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, few experts expected the talks to get very far. But sessions have become surprisingly substantive, particularly those between Syria and Israel.Much momentum has been lost in the five months since the last sessions were held. But there have been positive signs in recent days: For one thing, the Palestinians have returned to the table.
Palestinian leaders had vowed to boycott the peace talks until the 400 Palestinians deported by Israel to southern Lebanon last year were allowed to return. The decision was reversed under pressure from the United States, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Labor government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has made concessions that would have been unlikely under the more hard-line government of ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir:
* The Israelis have tacitly indicated that there will be no further expulsions of Palestinians, at least for now.
* They have agreed to the presence of key Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini as head of the Palestinian negotiating team.
* They have offered Palestinians control over police, postal delivery, and other services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If the parties are not prepared to make substantial progress on their own, the US will not be able to broker agreements. But if things begin to look serious in the most important talks - Israel-Syria, and Israeli-Palestinian - US proposals could make a difference, as they did at Camp David.
Palestinians might benefit from this. Although the Clinton administration is widely perceived as more pro-Israel than its predecessor, Palestinian negotiators have long called for a more active US role in the discussions. They feel nothing else will make Israel come to terms.
"We're determined to be helpful. We're anxious to move this process along," insisted Secretary of State Warren Christopher when announcing the resumption of the peace talks last week.
If the parties do not make progress soon, extremists on both sides may gain in power. Already, Palestinian radicals are denouncing the return of their leaders to the table, while Israeli settlers say they will never obey Palestinian police.
Some sort of early, tangible success could "deflate the naysayers" on both sides, noted Richard Murphy, the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for the Middle East.