ANOTHER rendition of the Middle East peace talks got under way this week with the resumption of multilateral negotiations on arms control, economic development, water issues, refugees, and the environment.
"Negotiations" may be too high-powered a word for these initial discussions, which are designed to air positions rather than hammer out agreements. And not everyone has even shown up. The Syrians and Lebanese opted out, they said, because the meetings have little meaning given the limited progress from head-to-head sessions with Israel over questions of territory. Israel's delegates are boycotting the gatherings on economic development and refugees because they include, with the blessing of the United St ates, Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza.
Such objections aside, these talks do have meaning. They continue a process of bringing together Middle Eastern parties that have historically been unable to sit down together, much less bargain productively. The multilateral talks have the added value of embracing a wider range of participants than Israel and the Arabs on its immediate border.
Other Arab states, such as the Gulf kingdoms, join in breaking the taboo of official contact with Israelis. Western European countries and Japan, hosting many of the sessions, get a larger stake in the process and may be more willing, when the time comes, to contribute to economic projects crucial to a durable peace. And it is critical that the Russians be engaged in discussions on arms control, since their huge inventory of weapons could leak into the Middle East.
As one experienced observer of Middle East politics put it, a supporting network is being woven together that can increase the prospects of success for what will be long, often frustrating negotiations.
The talks aren't likely to produce anything of note before the Israeli elections in June. The Palestinians are experiencing their own turmoil, with some factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization wanting to pull out of the talks.
No one, however, wants to be labeled the spoiler. All sides have more to gain from continuing the process than retreating to their bunkers.