MIDDLE East negotiators gather in Washington Oct. 21 against a background of renewed violence that has dampened hopes of ending decades of Arab-Israeli conflict.
A sharp, week-long resurgence of Palestinian protests against Israel is an index of Arab frustration with the meager fruits of six rounds of peace talks, Arab analysts say. For their part, Israelis see the revival of Palestinian unrest as a confirmation of the risks involved in peacemaking.
Without a breakthrough soon, the year-long peace process may be in jeopardy, both sides agree.
"The behavior on the streets is indicative of the high level of frustration over the lack of results in the peace process," says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "So far that doesn't translate into opposition to the peace process per se. But time is running out very quickly."
"Pressure tactics and renewed street violence can only increase Israeli fears that even a limited Palestinian autonomy will turn areas adjacent to Israeli's population centers into an anarchic, Lebanon-like hell," the English-language Israeli daily, the Jerusalem Post, editorialized recently.
Arab parties are also concerned about the implications of a Democratic victory in the Nov. 3 United States elections, which now appears likely. They warn that any changes by a Clinton administration in the ground rules of the talks, or failure to give the talks full attention, could lead to collapse.
Negotiators are likely to bide their time until the election is over. This seventh round of talks is expected to adjourn for election week then resume until late November.
The first-ever comprehensive Middle East peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestinians - began last October. Although few expected the process to go very far, negotiators have cleared various procedural hurdles and are now engaged in matters of substance.
The main focus has been on negotiations between Israel and a joint delegation of Palestinians and Jordanians. The two sides have agreed on the need for general elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip but disagree on their purpose. Israelis envision the creation of an administrative council of Palestinians with powers derived from Israeli law. Palestinians want a full-fledged legislature.
Behind these disagreements are conflicting visions of the final status of the territories. Israel defines Palestinian self-determination in terms of expanded autonomy, and Palestinians see it as full independence from Israel.
The other main talks are between Syria and Israel. After refusing for more than two decades even to talk to Israel until it returned the strategic Golan Heights, Damascus has softened its position and now even speaks of eventual peace with the Jewish state.
But the two sides are divided on the crucial issue of timing. Syria says the peace Israel covets can only come after the Golan is returned. Israel says the land Syria covets can be theirs only after a formal peace is signed.