IT took two superpowers and a peripatetic American secretary of state to put the Middle East peace process on track. It may take no more than four Israeli parliamentarians to derail it. As Israeli and Arab delegations were winding down their second round of bilateral talks in Washington yesterday, members of two tiny right-wing parties said they will quit to prevent the government from offering autonomy to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At worst, the revolt, which could cost Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir his majority in parliament, could force Israel to suspend the talks until new elections are held. At best, it would simply rob Mr. Shamir of a mandate to pursue substantive discussions with his Arab neighbors.
Wednesday's news from Israel was but the latest to cloud prospects for the talks which, following a four-day session this week, were ending without progress and amid increasingly bitter recriminations over Jewish settlement activity and alleged Palestinian terrorism in the two occupied territories.
At this writing, talks were expected to adjourn at noon Thursday, and no new date or venue for resuming them had been announced. Israel wants to move the talks to or near the Middle East and says it will not resume negotiations in Washington. One possible compromise venue could be Europe.
In a first stab at substance, Palestinians this week unveiled a proposal for limited self-rule in the territories during a five-year transition period that would precede the implementation of final status arrangements. Under the plan, Israeli troops would be replaced by United Nations peacekeepers, while an elected Palestinian assembly would take over some of the functions of local government. Israel, which has not tabled its own plan for Palestinian autonomy, has long opposed any UN presence in the terr itories. Israel is also opposed to allowing Arab residents of East Jerusalem to vote in or be eligible for local elections, and it says it would reject any Palestinian jurisdiction over the affairs of East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian plan also calls for the creation of a 20-member executive committee within the assembly. Palestinians hope - and many Israelis fear - that it will be the forerunner of an executive branch in a future Palestinian state.
Determined to let the delegations work out their differences without US interference, United States Secretary of State James Baker III has remained aloof from the peace process he was instrumental in setting in motion. But this week he met with negotiators from all four delegations to urge greater conciliation.
The way for the first talks between Israel and members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was cleared when Palestinians agreed Monday to the idea of negotiating in two subcommittees, one controlled by Palestinians and one controlled by Jordanians. A dispute over whether Palestinians would be recognized as a separate delegation blocked the start of substantive negotiations between the two sides during the first round of bilateral talks in December. Israel is negotiating separately with Syria and Lebanon.
This week's talks were the second of a three-phased peace process sponsored by the US. The first phase, a ceremonial opening, was held in Madrid in October, with the Soviet Union acting as cosponsor. Phase three, multilateral talks on regional issues, will begin in Moscow later this month.
The issue of Jewish settlements became the latest sticking point in the shaky peace process. Israeli spokesman say the issue is nonnegotiable until talks on the final status of the territories begin in three years. Palestinians say that in three years there will be no land left to negotiate. The delegations have come to a "head-on collision" over the matter, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said this week. Jordanians sounded the most conciliatory note of the week, hinting that relations with Israel could be restored when a peace settlement is reached. Among Arab nations, only Egypt has recognized Israel.