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In Middle Eastern politics, the word "no' never means simply "no'

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there's just no way to make the word "no" sound like "yes," or even "maybe." Sometimes "no" will come through loud and clear even if you're a skilled diplomat or politician in the Middle East who is good at twisting around the meaning of even simple words to make your side look good and the other side bad.

That's apparently what happened on Friday when Israel replied to the latest U.S. proposals for an international peace conference on the Middle East. In a lengthy and so far confidential letter to President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir apparently refused to go along with two proposals that would have made such a conference possible. In effect, it looks like Shamir said "no."

What Bush and Secretary of State James Baker want from Israel seems simple enough on paper but has a lot of implications in practice.

First, they want Israeli agreement that the United Nations be represented at the conference as an observer. Second, they want the Israelis to give up their demand that the full conference be only a one-time prelude to direct negotiations between the Israelis and their individual Arab neighbors.

For their part, the Arabs have been demanding that the conference be set up so that it convenes at regular intervals in full session, including representatives of the major world powers as well as the Middle East nations in question. This is what the Bush administration is proposing as well and what Israel apparently turned down flatly on Friday.

An outsider can be excused for thinking this is a lot of procedural wrangling that doesn't mean much. The Arabs and Israelis, however, take these things very seriously.

They know better than anybody that procedures and ground rules can shape the results of negotiations as much as the issues.

The Arabs, for instance, know that other than the United States, Israel has few friends in the world. In a conference with many nations present, Israel almost certainly would be the odd man out and inevitably come off looking like the spoiler. This is exactly what the Arabs want because they believe Israel finally would be forced to make concessions it has refused to make in the past.

The Israelis know this too and have no intention of letting it happen. They want separate negotiations with each of Israel's Arab neighbors that, in their view, would make the bargaining a little more equal. They'll okay a one-time meeting of a larger conference as a symbolic sanctioning body for the talks, but the negotiations themselves have to be one-on-one.

But just as important as what the Arabs and Israelis want from each other is what they don't want to tell the world, especially the United States. That, of course, is the word "no."

Saying "no" _ especially when the United States is asking a favor _ makes your country the villain of the story, the one that gets blamed for lack of peace in the Middle East and possibly the world at large.

That's why Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Shamir's spokesman, Avi Pazner, came out on Friday and denied that the prime minister's letter was a total rejection of the American proposals.

"It was not sent with any negative intentions. God forbid. We don't know why it has been characterized as negative," Pazner told reporters in Jerusalem after reports of Shamir's letter leaked out and Israel appeared to come across as the nation that turned its back on peace.

Arens was even more creative in trying to put a good face on things. Shamir's letter, he said, "actually gave positive answers to most of the proposals brought before us."

You'll notice, of course, that neither man referred specifically to the proposal on periodic full sessions of the peace conference or U.N. observer status. What Pazner and Arens were doing was not denying that Shamir said "no" to Bush on these questions, but trying to put what's known in Washington as a "good spin" on it.

The Bush administration wants this Middle East conference very much. The president wants to show the Arabs that he meant what he said when he promised to press for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute once the gulf war was over.

If Israel thwarts Bush on this one, it can expect some heat. Shamir knows this and no doubt will be working on Israel's many friends in Congress to help control the damage. That's why the "good spin" is so necessary, why Israel can't afford to let "no" look simply like "no."