JERUSALEM — American officials here describe a business-like atmosphere in the marathon meetings trying to push through a deal on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron.
But most business meetings don't go on in secret at 3 a.m. - as this weekend's summit did. And some participants say there has also been unproductive bickering in months of talks aimed at restarting the peace accords to grant Palestinian self-rule.
Interviews with the participants closest to the negotiations paint a picture of creeping progress and myriad frustrations.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders bemoan how much they are compromising - and how they have lost support from their public.
Meanwhile, American mediators are being drawn ever deeper into the minutiae of the peace process - and having to strong-arm the participants into making even tiny compromises.
"For hours, it's just: 'Do you want to implement the agreement?' 'No, I don't.' 'Do you want to implement the agreement?' 'No, I don't. I want to do so and so,' " says Palestinian Liberation Organization negotiator and peace accords architect Ahmed Qreia, known as Abu Ala.
"There is no logic to the negotiations," he says. "We are running for four months in the same circle, and we are tired."
So is US peace envoy Dennis Ross, whose every trip to the region seems to grow into two weeks rather than its planned two days.
And the man who has become the de facto secretary of state in the Middle East since Warren Christopher announced his resignation faces the task of managing the give and take of the peace process.
US officials here say the talks have consisted mostly of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing the giving - by backing down from many of his earlier demands to alter the accords - and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's attempts to take a little more before the signing is done.
The arm-twisting that Mr. Ross and other US officials here are expected to do is no easy feat, with Israelis and Palestinians insisting they've given all they can afford to give without losing face at home.
If there is a logic to the negotiations, the American mediators' methods might best be described as Socratic, constantly quizzing and probing in search of finding common ground.
When the two sides dig in on their positions, "I respond by asking questions of each," says an American official. "Is it possible for them to consider one approach? What is the nature of the difficulties?"
There were many predictions that a deal was on the verge on finalization late last year. But today the Hebron deal is stuck on the issue of whether Israel will commit to a date for all three stages of its planned troop withdrawals from the West Bank, as outlined in the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accords.
The handover of rural areas to the Palestinian Authority was to have begun in September and finished this coming fall. But Mr. Netanyahu is only willing to give a date for the first of the three redeployments.
And Mr. Arafat, fearing that the hawkish Israeli premier is trying to avoid carrying out the other withdrawals, is insisting that the dates be kept to the letter.
After weeks of anticipation that Ross would clinch a deal with an Arafat-Netanyahu summit, the leaders instead opted for an talk late Saturday that ran until 6 a.m. Ross had hoped that a meeting away from the media spotlight would help advance the talks and build confidence.
The appeal of secret meetings
But a clandestine meeting is also not so surprising for the conductors of the little peace train that couldn't.
Netanyahu is losing support daily in his right-wing Cabinet for his willingness to carry out the Hebron redeployment with few changes from the original agreement he so vehemently criticized.
He is suffering the additional embarrassment of looking desperate to get Arafat to sign the deal. The beleaguered premier wanted to keep the meeting quiet to save himself from appearing to seek approval from Arafat, the political nemesis with whom Netanyahu had refused to meet during his first three months in office.
And the Palestinian leader, who gained the upper hand in the last few months of stalemate and strife, is commonly described as a night owl who often calls meetings with his inner circle when most people are asleep.
The meeting amounted mostly to a competition of commiseration with each of the leaders trying to get the other to understand how he is really the besieged one.
Arafat and Netanyahu spent a lot of time trying "to explain what their own difficulties are, and see how they can address those," said an American official.
White House carrot and stick
In attempting to try to lure the leaders to an agreement, President Clinton has sent letters of invitation for the two to visit the White House.
Such a visit could repair Netanyahu's battered international standing, and hold for Arafat the possibility of getting more aid out of Washington, including $10 million in support that has been held up in a congressional committee.
But Clinton will not host the two until after they sign a deal, and even then, only separately: He does not want a repeat of the summit after last September's Israeli-Palestinian gun battles that failed to produce tangible progress.
Of late, American negotiators have shifted the onus to Arafat to sign a deal. "I've had some very difficult meetings with him over the past two weeks," says one American official close to the negotiations, adding that he was delivering "some very blunt messages from [Clinton] on the need to conclude this agreement."
Such tough talk has delighted the Israelis, who accuse Arafat of stalling while the Hebron powder keg threatens to ignite. But this talk also prompts Palestinians to accuse the Americans of being biased in Israel's favor.
"It's unjust to say that Arafat is postponing and not signing," says Abu Ala. In the Palestinian view, the fact that Arafat agreed to even discuss the modification of an existing agreement was a Palestinian concession.
"If Netanyahu has pressure from members of his cabinet," he adds, "Arafat has pressures from the people on the street. We appreciate Dennis Ross, but want the US role to be more fair, and try to understand the Palestinian position."
That kind of criticism has surfaced often in the latest round of talks. When Ross drew up a working list of points of agreement he observed in bargaining positions last fall, the Palestinians rejected it.
"He adopted the Israeli positions because it's cheaper for him to counter us," says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Ross, who is to continue to serve as Middle East envoy under incoming Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, seems undaunted by such protests. But he warned, as he often does in trying to prod for progress, that he will go home in a few days if no agreement is reached.