ANOTHER round of Middle East peace talks begins this week in Washington, but the event will get only minor headlines. Washington's attention - and that of most Arab and Israeli negotiators - will be on the American presidential election.
Because of this major distraction, the peace negotiators aren't likely to accomplish a great deal this time around. At best, the sides can solidify the procedural and atmospheric breakthroughs already made and perhaps begin to lay out statements of principles on such issues as demilitarization of the Golan Heights. Big advances - such as a workable outline for Palestinian self-government - could be months away.
In the interim, however, the parties can help set the stage for substantial progress by continued confidence building. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has taken positive steps by freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and refusing to deport others.
Recent flare-ups of violence in the West Bank and Gaza have generated calls from Israel's right wing for a renewed crackdown, but Mr. Rabin should hold his ground.
The Arab states should consider dropping their largely ineffectual secondary boycott against companies that do business with Israel. That would have significant symbolic value.
Palestinian peace negotiators have the particularly difficult task of convincing their constituents that the process ought to be diligently pursued regardless of sparse results so far. What they need, above all, is confirmation that Israel intends to relinquish control of most, if not all, of the occupied territories.
Right now, however, everyone is watching the election and wondering about the commitment the next US administration will bring to Mideast peacemaking.
George Bush and James Baker have done a admirable job of guiding the talks to their current stage. But a second Bush term would have to shift its emphasis to domestic affairs.
Could a Clinton presidency muster the knowledge, even-handedness, and perseverance required to see the peace process through to success?
Whoever wins Nov. 3 must promptly affirm his determination to give peace in the Middle East high priority. Continued American involvement as a facilitating third party in the process will be vital.