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Deadlock remains as Middle East talks break up

THE ARAB-ISRAELI peace talks adjourned after four weeks yesterday, with both sides struggling to point to any substantial evidence of progress.

Even the prospect of an early breakthough in Israeli-Syrian relations, with an outline agreement on a deal over the Golan Heights, looked bleaker at the end of the talks than it had midway through.

All sides agreed to reconvene in Washington in mid-October. But, as the negotiators left Washington almost empty-handed, it was already clear that major political decisions must now be taken in Jerusalem and in Arab capitals if the hopes of a breakthrough, which followed the election of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in June, are to be realised soon.

Progress on the Palestinian front was most disappointing. A landmark move towards self-rule, starting with elections in the West Bank and Gaza, was the prime goal of the Washington meetings, and it had been hoped that the talks would end with an announcement, at the very least, of a date for the elections.

Instead, the two sides adjourned without even starting to resolve the question of what powers the electoral body should have. The talks became impaled on the seemingly insoluble division between Israel's refusal to give any ground which might appear to be a concession on sovereignty, and the Palestinians' insistence on a real transfer of power.

While the Palestinian talks floundered early in the proceedings, hopes were raised that warmer relations between Syria and Israel could bring unexpectedly sudden progress here. Israel conceded early on in the talks that it could discuss returning part of the Golan Heights in return for a full peace treaty, including full diplomatic relations and open borders, with Syria. Syria appeared to respond positively at first, presenting its own proposals for a deal. However, predictably, Syria continued to insist on total withdrawal before any discussion of a peace treaty: a demand which - equally predictably - Israel could not contemplate.

But it is unfair to judge the significance of the Washington talks purely on the lack of concrete results at the negotiating table.

Whatever the problems faced by the negotiators, these meetings did constitute the first meaningful attempt by all sides to talk about peace since the start of the Middle East conflict. As such they were used by respective governments as a means to test - and, perhaps, to begin to turn - entrenched public opinion at home.

Because these talks were potentially for real, all leaders involved were heavily constrained by the likely effect of any move on their own constituencies. Before the next round of talks all leaders involved will be taking the temperature of their own streets to see just how much further they could move next time.

The conventional wisdom is that the Palestinians would like to reach agreement while the Republican administration - which is deemed to be tougher on Israel than the Democrats - is still in power in the United States. The Israelis are rumoured to be willing to hold back from any big concessions in case the Democrats come in.