THE sixth round of Middle East peace talks got off to a better than expected start this week, despite continued warnings by some diplomatic observers that progress is likely to be slow. "Everybody is in a different mood now," says an Arab diplomat who has closely followed the peace process, which resumed Tuesday after a four-month interregnum. "The important thing to emphasize is the climate, the environment, the readiness of all parties equally."
The latest phase of the 10-month peace process brings Israel and its immediate neighbors - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians - into parallel negotiations, which are expected to last a full month. It is the first round of talks since the election of Israel's Labor government, which has adopted a more conciliatory attitude in its dealings with the Arab states.
The new tone of the negotiations was signaled Tuesday when Israeli negotiators put on the table a plan calling for balloting in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to elect a 20-member Palestinian administrative council. The council would assume responsibility for health matters, tourism, education, and local law enforcement during a five-year autonomy period. Israel would retain control over foreign policy and defense at least until the final status of the territories is determined in later talks.
Palestinians are still demanding full control over the territories and a legislature to run them. Even so, Palestinian spokesmen have given the Israeli plan a guarded welcome.
A new mood of seriousness was underscored by the decision of the delegations to dispense with daily press briefings, which in earlier rounds turned into verbal battlegrounds.
This week's talks extend a United States-brokered peace process that was launched last October in Madrid. The main focus of the talks is territory Israel conquered during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war: the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, which two United Nations resolutions have called on Israel to return in exchange for a comprehensive peace settlement.
The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir insisted that Israel had met its obligations by returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the Camp David treaty in 1979.
The peace process got a new lease on life when Mr. Shamir was voted out of office last June. His successor, Yitzhak Rabin, says he will be willing to relinquish portions of the West Bank and Gaza - and of the Golan, which is claimed by Syria - while retaining strategically important areas.
This week's talks began on an auspicious note when Mr. Rabin released 800 Palestinian prisoners and canceled deportation orders for 11 others. Last month Rabin partially responded to another Arab demand by curtailing, though not halting, the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Rabin's strategy has adroitly transferred the burden of making concessions from Israel to the Arab parties. Often a complicating factor in diplomacy, political considerations could help keep the parties engaged through the inevitable controversies that lie ahead. President Bush believes successful talks will showcase his diplomatic achievements during the US election campaign. Rabin would like a breakthrough while his electoral manadate is still fresh. And Arab leaders, who trust Bush and are concerned w ith Democratic challenger Bill Clinton's strong pro-Israel views, will be constrained from obstructing a settlement.
"The moment is really opportune," the Arab diplomat says.