IT may be a peace conference, but it hasn't been too peaceful so far. As the United States-brokered Mideast initiative lurches toward its second stage, Israel is being prickly, Arabs are charging sabotage, and the US is doing its best to ignore all the squawking.As of this writing it wasn't yet clear what sort of Israeli delegation would attend the opening of the next round of negotiations in Washington on Dec. 4. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir continued to insist publicly on a five-day delay. But he hinted about compromise, and President Bush said Friday that, no matter what Israel decides, the conference will open as scheduled. "I don't know who's going to show up," said Bush. News reports from Jerusalem indicated an Israeli delegation composed of junior officials would show up in Washington on time, in an effort to avoid too much bad publicity. Arab delegations have all accepted the Dec. 4 starting date. In an interview published Saturday, Jordan's King Hussein charged that the Israeli leadership was afraid of peace. If the conference falls apart, lamented King Hussein, "the ground will be left to extremist elements." To the layman the dispute over timing seems trivial. And in a way it is: The intensity with which both sides have addressed the date question only emphasizes how far they are from talking about the real causes of conflict in the Mideast. But there is some substance behind Israel's tactics, and both sides know it. The conference process may already have started in the Madrid meetings, but there is no design for how it should proceed. Both sides want to shape the conference timing, location, and agenda, in an effort to focus on what they want to talk about. In diplomat-speak, negotiation logistics are called "modalities," and they figure large in the opening of almost every set of tough talks. The US and North Vietnam spent months wrangling over the shape of the table at the start of the Paris peace talks. "Procedural issues are often very important," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Israel and the Arabs have very different blueprints for where the talks should go from here. Israel wants things to proceed slowly. That way, Israeli officials figure, they can negotiate with each Arab nation in turn, settling bilateral issues, rather than be ganged up on by the Arab side and pushed into a corner. Slow negotiations, from Israel's point of view, would take advantage of its growing grip on the occupied territories, which becomes stronger with each Israeli settlement raised. Israel wants the Arabs to recognize its right to exist. That's why Shamir has been so insistent on moving the location of the talks to the Middle East, and was so evidently annoyed at the US issuing invitations for Washington instead. The Israelis want Arab diplomats to come to Jerusalem, which they see as a powerful de facto acceptance of their permanence. Israeli officials talk often of negotiating in each other's "homes." Most Arab participants, on the other hand, seem to want things to move quickly. They want to take advantage of what they are beginning to judge a troubled time in US-Israeli relations. In February, the Bush administration and Congress are scheduled to address once again Israel's request for $10 billion in US loan guarantees to help settle immigrants; Arabs see this coming debate as an opportunity to get the US to link financial aid to Israeli concessions on the occupied territories. Arabs want to focus international attention on the talks, creating yet more heat on Israel. Israel wants to talk more quietly, playing from its regional strengths. "The more the US is seen twisting Israel's arm, the more it could feed the delusion of harder-line Arab adversaries that the US will deliver the peace. The reality is, no peace is possible unless Arabs negotiate with Israel," insists Robert Lieber. Israeli stubbornness on the opening date question seems to stem at least in part from a feeling on the part of Prime Minister Shamir that he was insulted by the way the US issued invitations. The proposal of a Dec. 4 opening, in Washington, was issued before Shamir had a chance to personally argue for a Mideast venue in an Oval Office visit with President Bush. US inclusion of "suggestions" for negotiation topics in its invitation documents only fed Israeli suspicion of a US administration it has never been fond of. "This is not an administration they find predictable," notes international affairs Prof. Bernard Reich of George Washington University.