THE breakdown of diplomatic efforts in the Middle East peace process underscores the wide conceptual gaps between the Arabs and Israel and a lack of concrete goals established by the talks' sponsors.
The lack of a breakthrough and the serious prospect of collapse, however, do not mean the 20-month talks have produced no results. Interviews with participants show small but important steps:
* The idea of coexistence with Israel is more acceptable to the Arabs. From the Israeli standpoint, a de facto normalization is gradually taking place.
* Although Israel still does not recognize Palestinian national rights, the Israeli public is more accepting of a territorial compromise and Palestinian nationhood.
* Sensitive issues such as water allocation and security arrangements are being discussed at the multilateral talks.
* Both sides are slowly coming to grips with the painful reality of a need for historic compromise.
* Israelis show willingness to deal with the Palestinian delegation as representatives of their people rather than subordinates.
But these gains could be lost if fundamental issues regarding the basis and goals of the process are not clearly defined.
The parties involved, including the United States and Russian co-sponsors, agree that the goal is to reach a just and comprehensive peace settlement on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. These resolutions call on Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied since 1967 in return for peace with the Arab world.
But after 10 tedious rounds of talks, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, along with Washington and Moscow, have failed to agree even on the interpretation of the UN resolutions. Who moves first?
According to participants, much of the time was spent on how to reconcile Israel's security concerns and demands for normalization with Arab demands for a full Israeli withdrawal. Resolution 242 implies that a land-for-peace deal could achieve both. But each side has expected the other to make the first concession.
The Arabs argue that 242 should lead to a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including Eastern Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. The Israeli position acknowledges the principle of territorial compromise but falls short of a total withdrawal.
"The Arabs are demanding something tangible. We have to get something tangible in return," explains Israeli spokeswoman Ruth Yaroni, referring to Israeli demands for a peace treaty with Syria.
Jordan has already reached a tentative framework of understanding, but has refused to sign it until there is concrete progress between the Palestinians and the Israelis. "We simply cannot leave the Palestinians out in the cold," a senior Jordanian negotiator says.
Israeli officials have openly and publicly voiced opposition to Palestinians statehood. Resolution 242 does not deal with Palestinian self-determination since it was drafted when the West Bank was considered part of Jordanian sovereignty. Palestinians and some legal experts argue that King Hussein's 1988 decision to relinquish his responsibility of the West Bank automatically transfered the jurisdiction of the territory to the Palestinians.
The structure of the current talks, as agreed upon by parties, stipulates that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute be negotiated in two phases: First, the estabishment of interim transition arrangements, and second, negotiations over the final status of the territories based on 242. When does 242 apply?
Although the Palestinians agreed to this structure, it has hindered their drive to secure an Israeli withdrawal commitment. The co-sponsors say 242 cannot be invoked in the first stage, which means that Israel can maintain legal and security control over the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during an interim period.
"It is like moving in a dessert ... with no signs, no landmark, no direction," says Nabil Kassis, a Palestinian negotiator.
"The problems with the Palestinians is that they have a clear cut agenda to lay the ground for a future Palestinian state," says one Israeli negotiator. "Thus instead of focusing on practical steps and keeping all options open they are stuck on concepts and steps that will lead to Palestinian statehood."
The lack of a clear mechanism to enforce 242 is another hurdle, from the Arab viewpoint. United States officials bluntly state they will not support any attempt to introduce a new UN resolution that will provide a mechanism for 242. Furthermore, Israelis argue that 242 is lacking in terms of the final goal of a peace treaty.
"An end of the state of belligerency is simply not enough," according to Ms. Yaroni. She says the process should lead to the acceptance and integration of the Jewish state in the region.
The situation is somewhat different between Israel and Lebanon, in that the letter of invitation - which the US now says constitutes the major basis for the current talks - does not have any reference to UN Resolutions 425, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.
Breaking the impasse, officials say, will require a new starting point for the negotiations based on the consideration of all the parties. But the fact that the parties are still talking with one another gives hope.