Middle East negotiations pause in conciliatory mood

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ARAB and Israeli delegates adjourn their talks for 10 days today, in the hope that consultation with their respective governments will produce new impetus. The talks are not breaking up in total deadlock. There are new proposals on the table which could provide the key to future progress if the delegations' leaders give them the authority to continue talking.

The idea, supported by all sides, that this round of talks in Washington would be 'continuous' was perhaps over-optimistic. Not only do the Jewish, Muslim and US calendars contain several holidays (next week there is American Labour Day, two Muslim holidays and the Jewish Sabbath) but all sides need frequent pauses to confer. The Israelis fly back to Jerusalem today with a 10-point plan from the Palestinians setting out a framework for agreement on self-rule in the occupied territories. The Israelis also take with them a Syrian paper on the future of the Golan Heights.

The Palestinians sought to break early stalemate - after Israel presented its outline for self- rule - by setting out alternative guidelines for a framework agreement which could supersede their blueprint for Palestinian Interim Self-Government.

The new proposals - which centre on a list of topics to be covered - are presented in accommodating terms to 'find common ground'. In that sense they will be welcomed by Israel, which rejected the earlier blueprint as an outline for a Palestinian state. However, the Palestinians have included headings which Israel has refused to discuss, including Jerusalem. Talks may descend into a squabble about the agenda. Israel argues that the status of Jerusalem is not for these talks.

The Palestinians have also proposed that the talks address the issue of 'displaced persons' - refugees who fled the West Bank to Jordan in 1967 - and security. Israel would prefer to keep these issues, too, off the agenda. The fact that the Palestinians wish to talk about the powers for the new autonomous body, however, suggests that they may see room for compromise in other areas. They wish to discuss ideas for independent supervision of the transition.

Syria wants Israel to agree to total withdrawal from the Golan, and may offer security guarantees in return including possible demilitarisation and international supervision. Israel has softened its line on the Golan, by signalling that it may consider returning some territory under the land-for- peace terms of UN resolution 242. Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, will find it hard to contemplate total withdrawal.

The architect of the peace process, the former US Secretary of State, James Baker, who now runs Mr Bush's re-election campaign, is keeping his distance, having handed over to Lawrence Eagleburger. But Mr Baker is keeping some aspects of US policy 'in his own back pocket', say officials. They are referring to policy on the release of loan guarantees to Israel, which has been agreed in principle by Mr Bush but has yet to be endorsed by Congress.

If the two sides do reach deadlock, the US administration will produce its own proposals, say officials. That moment, they say, has not yet arrived.