BURDENED by a distinct lack of enthusiasm and continued controversy over who should represent the Palestinians, the multilateral Middle East peace negotiations got off to a troubled start this week in Moscow.
Israel's refusal to talk to Palestinian exiles threatened the future of the talks, and also presaged a new conflict with the United States, as Secretary of State James Baker III and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy voiced opposing views on the subject.
At the same time, Arab countries' unwillingness to talk seriously about regional issues until Israel has made concessions in bilateral peace talks with its neighbors seemed to undermine the key US concept of parallel and complementary negotiations.
The conference, attended by more than 30 nations from the Middle East and around the world, set up working groups on five regional issues - arms control, economic development, water resources, environmental problems, and refugees.
But the date of their next meetings was not agreed upon and is not expected to be before May. Nor was the nature of their discussions decided; some groups may meet only as seminars, rather than negotiating forums, conference organizers say.
The delay and vagueness of the next step reflect Arab and Israeli reservations about the direction the peace process, cosponsored by the US and Russia, is taking.
The suggestion of seminars was designed to offer an informal forum for talks that would sidestep Israeli objections to participation by Palestinians outside the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinians stayed away from the Moscow meeting to protest the limitations placed on their representation.
"What is really meant [by the seminar suggestion] is the participation of the Palestinian delegation," Russian Foreign Ministry official Oleg Derkovsky said.
Israel worries that by talking to Palestinians from Jerusalem it will undermine its claim to sovereignty over the whole city, and that by including Palestinian exiles it could open the way for their return to the land on which Israel was created in 1948.
The Palestinians, however, insist that all their people must be represented in negotiations on regional issues, especially refugees.
Mr. Baker surprised the Israelis by saying that the cosponsors "would be supportive of Palestinian requests to include diaspora representatives [from outside the occupied territories] in appropriate working groups such as refugees and economic development after the Moscow meeting."
Although a US official clarified that "being supportive is not a guarantee," Arab delegates took Baker's remark as a commitment.
The Israelis, however, remained adamant. Recalling that the Palestinians had agreed to send only residents of the West Bank and Gaza to the launch of the peace process in Madrid last October, Israeli Foreign Ministry Dir. Gen. Yosef Hadass insisted that the Palestinians "have got to respect the criteria. Let them respect their commitments. We have accepted the representatives of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and we are not going to change it," he said. "We will not even consider it in the future."
The seminar formula also suited the Arabs' desire to delay real negotiation of regional issues until progress is achieved in Israel's direct talks with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
"Everyone has underlined the importance of achieving progress at the bilaterals," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. "The seminars give time for other components of the peace process to produce, and for the situation in the occupied territories to improve."
The delegations from Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf states, Tunisia, and Morocco seemed to support the Palestinian contention that "without full, effective participation by the Palestinians, no progress can be made" in the multi- lateral talks, as Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi put it.
Their stand also underscored Syria and Lebanon's argument for staying away from the meeting - that Israel had not done enough to make peace with them in bilateral negotiations. Israel, on the other hand, is anxious to get on with the multilaterals, and came with practical project suggestions that contrasted with the general approach adopted by the Arabs.
"While we keep in view the horizon of peace ... we can start to prepare development projects to permit countries of the region to start exploiting resources regionally," General Hadass said.
Although Israel's hope of gradually normalizing relations with the Arab world without giving it satisfaction over the Palestinian question suffered a setback, the Jewish state did succeed in sitting at the same table with an unprecedented number of Arab states.
At the same time, Palestinian delegates said their refusal to send only an approved delegation had given them a victory.
Baker's support for a wider Palestinian team next time, Ms. Ashrawi said, showed that "we have dislodged a position that was entrenched."