THE latest round of peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis began with unaccustomed optimism. Led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel did most to create an upbeat atmosphere. Reversing the stance of its predecessor, the Rabin government made it clear that territories negotiable under United Nations resolutions 242 and 338 would include the Golan Heights. This opened the possibility, at least, of meaningful talks with Syria.
Israel also freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and lifted expulsion orders on 11 others. Palestinian negotiators at the peace conference in Washington noted a marked change from the confrontational tone taken by the Israelis former hard-line Likud regime.
But a change of tone is still a long way from substantive bargaining and compromise. The Syrians may now be willing to join Iraelis during coffee breaks from the talks, but neither side has yet come to grips with the difficult task of deciding how to reconcile Israel's security needs with Syria's demand that the whole of the Golan be returned as a prerequisite for peace.
The door to that discussion has been nudged open, however. Though it's a long shot, the Syria-Israel portion of the peace process could move ahead independently of the other areas of negotiation. The differences are deep, but the issues are relatively clear-cut.
That can't be said of the issues separating Palestinians and Israelis. They involve the extraordinarily complicated question of developing an interim self-government plan for Palestinians that neither affirms nor denies eventual Palestinian statehood. That eventuality can't be ruled out if Palestinians are to remain engaged in the talks, and it can't be prematurely proclaimed if Israelis are to remain.
The autonomy plan put forward last week by the Israeli delegation moved far beyond anything the Likud government might have advanced. But it fell well short of what Palestinians desire. Central to Palestinian concerns is a real transfer of authority from the present Israeli military rulers of the West Bank and Gaza. Whether a new Palestinian body is called "administrative" or "legislative," it ought to have genuine rulemaking power, and it should have a clear role in such crucial areas as land and water use.
Not seeing such developments, Palestinian negotiators have declared a "deadlock." They can't rest there, however. What's needed is a Palestinian counterproposal and a commitment from both sides to continue a step-by-step process of compromise and conciliation.