TWO weeks into the sixth round of Middle East peace talks, diplomatic observers are evincing a rare measure of optimism. Israel and its Arab neighbors, they are becoming convinced, have come to the bargaining table with a genuine interest in turning the page on nearly half a century of strife.
But as the negotiations pass from matters of procedure to issues of substance, the tasks of peacemaking remain as daunting as ever.
"This does not mean collapse," says an Arab journalist who has been following the talks since last October's opening round in Madrid. "But when you get to the details, the optimism will evaporate. The talks will be long and tough."
The Washington talks, which have brought Israel into parallel sets of negotiations with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, enter their third week Monday.
All parties agree that the tone of the negotiations has been far more constructive than in past rounds, because of the more conciliatory policies of Israel's new Labor government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The greatest hopes have been invested in talks between Israel and a joint delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians who are negotiating the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The two sides are expected to agree soon on the formation of working groups to speed progress. They are also negotiating a specific agenda for the talks. But comity alone will not bridge fundamental differences over how to define Palestinian self-rule, analysts say.
The only thing the two sides agree on is that there should be general elections in the territories, which have been ruled by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. From there, their visions of the future diverge dramatically.
Israel says the elected body should be a 15-member council with limited administrative responsibilities in such areas as education and public health. Palestinians are calling for a 180-member assembly with full legislative powers.
Behind the issue of how the body should be structured is the more-vexing question of what the source of its authority should be.
Israel insists that a Palestinian council can operate only under existing Israeli law. Palestinians say it would be impossible to make decisions on issues like land, water, and transportation without two elements that are missing from the Israeli plan: the right to make laws and the right to exercise sovereignty over some geography. Anything less, they say, would relegate the elected Palestinians to the status of employees of Israel.
"Can there really be self-government without legislative power?", asks Palestinian delegate Saeb Erekat.
An even more difficult issue is how the autonomy arrangements that are worked out would relate to the territories' final status, which is to be negotiated two years after the autonomy agreement is signed.
Israel conceives of an expanded form of autonomy, with the two territories remaining under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians envision an independent state, which Israel says would be inimical to its security.
Both sides say the other's conception of the five-year autonomy period would violate the principle, adopted from the 1979 Camp David accord, that nothing in the autonomy plan should prejudice the final status of the territories.
"Israel sees the self-governing authority as an end in itself. Palestinians see it as a means to an end," says Mr. Erekat, a professor and journalist from Jericho. "It's a major difference."
At another basic level, the disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians is rooted in conflicting interpretations of the two United Nations resolutions on which the peace talks are based.
Israeli officials point out that the English translation of the resolutions, which call on Israel to swap land for peace, refers to "territories" conquered by Israel, implying that Israel should return some, but not necessarily all, occupied land. They add that the "secure" borders to which Israel is entitled by the resolutions may not be the same ones that existed before the conflict began, since the security requirements of Israel have changed over the past 25 years.
Arabs note that the other official translations refer to "the" territories, implying that Israel should relinquish control over all occupied land. They add that a central tenet of the UN's philosophy, repeated in the resolutions, is the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force.
On another front, Israel's talks with Syria have shown small but unexpected signs of progress.
Prime Minister Rabin broke the ice with Damascus when he announced that Israel would be willing to cede a "few kilometers" of the Golan Heights, which was also occupied during the 1967 war.
In its initial response, Syria ruled out an interim or partial settlement that would fall short of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
But a document presented to the Israeli delegation on Monday acknowledges that Israel's security concerns need to be addressed in the negotiations, while committing Syria to reaching a settlement with Israel.
Analysts describe Syrian President Hafez al-Assad as a man caught between conflicting imperatives. One is the need to maintain an anti-Zionist posture that has given his minority Alawite regime credibility with Syria's Sunni majority. The other is the need to stay on the good side of the United States, which argues in favor of a conciliatory approach toward Israel.
If he decides that peace with Israel is the more urgent priority, President Assad would be strong enough to weather any domestic reaction, say analysts, who note that he took similar risks by backing Iran, a non-Arab state, during the Iran-Iraq war, and by joining the US-led coalition against Iraq during the Gulf war.
"Anti-Zionism is useful to Assad but it could be ditched if something else becomes more important," says Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "To give it up is potentially a severe loss but he could do it."
Any steps Assad may take toward a partial land-for-peace formula would represent the next step in the evolution of Syrian policy that began with the start of the peace process 10 months ago. Before then, Assad was adamant that Syria would never negotiate with Israel until the Golan Heights were returned.