WASHINGTON — PRODDED by a leadership change and the approach of national elections, Israel is resuming peace talks with Syria after a six-month hiatus. Success - which is considered somewhat likelier now - would remove the last link in a chain of hostile nations that have surrounded the Jewish state for the first 45 years of its existence.
"I believe peace between Israel and Syria will happen," Uri Savir, Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently. "Syria has no better alternative and we have no better alternative."
The moving force behind the new round of talks is Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres. A visionary with an eye on history and a taste for bold moves, Mr. Peres is eager to achieve a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough that would finally secure Israel's place in the Middle East, nearly half a century after its founding.
To ease the way, he has made procedural concessions refused by his predecessor, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was felled by an assassin's bullet last month.
Mr. Rabin insisted on resolving security issues related to the transfer of the Golan Heights first and confined the talks to Syrian and Israeli ambassadors and army chiefs. Peres has agreed to wider participation, an open agenda, and an active role for the United States as intermediary.
The peace talks stalled last June when Syria protested security arrangements demanded by Israel as a precondition to withdrawing from the Golan Heights, the strategic hills seized by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In return for full withdrawal, Israel would insist on full recognition from Syria, opening the door to diplomatic and trade ties, tourism, and regional cooperation on issues ranging from water to power generation.
Peres has won the enthusiastic support of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who has made brokering peace between Israel and Syria the top priority of what is presumed to be his final year as the top US diplomat.
The talks will take place at Wye Plantation, a conference center in eastern Maryland an hour's drive from Washington. They will adjourn after three days, then reconvene on Jan. 3, providing negotiators an opportunity to return home for consultations. On Jan. 10, Mr. Christopher will travel to Jerusalem and Damascus.
Like the Bosnia peace negotiations that were held last month in Dayton, Ohio, the Maryland talks will be off limits to reporters.
Seclusion "will make it possible to intensify the talks and will create an opportunity for more progress than we've made up to this point," Christopher told reporters last week.
With respect to Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, US and Israeli officials hope Rabin's assassination has clarified an essential point: that he should seize the moment for peace while a Labor Party government still rules in Israel. Peres will be challenged in next year's national elections by the rival Likud Party, which opposes relinquishing the Golan.
On Dec. 25, Peres's coalition defeated two no-confidence motions in the Israeli parliament by hard-line political parties opposed to giving up the Golan.
In one of several recent, unusually conciliatory statements from Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa complimented Peres on his flexibility in dealing with Damascus.
Mr. Sharaa also pledged Syrian efforts to constrain Hizbullah guerrillas who have used bases in southern Lebanon to attack Israel - a move, Israel hints, that could eventually lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon.
Stuck over security
As ever, the main sticking point in the negotiations will be the issue of security arrangements on the Golan.
When Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, starting in 1979, 125 miles of mountainous desert provided the strategic depth both sides needed to protect themselves against surprise attack.
But the Golan is a mere 18 miles in width, meaning that security will have to be based on limiting the number of troops posted near the border. Israel has said that such limits will have to be asymmetrical, a demand that has not gone down well in the Syrian capital.
The two countries have also debated the need for "listening posts" to provide early warning of an attack. Syria argues that troop movements can be monitored by satellites or overflights, which would obviate the need for an Israeli presence on Syria soil. There are new indications that the point is negotiable for Israel.
For Israel, the Golan has none of the religious significance of the West Bank, control of which is now being gradually relinquished to Palestinian authorities. But the region of sometimes snowcapped hillsides, apple orchards, and waterfalls is cherished by Israelis for both security and aesthetic reasons and has become home to 130,000 Jewish settlers, who will be forced to move if and when the strategic territory is returned. Peres would need nothing less than a full peace with Syria in hand before he could ask them to relocate, say analysts.
As he presses talks with Damascus, Peres is making the point that peace with Syria means peace with the rest of the Arab world. Because of Syria's close relationship with Iran, which it alone among Arab states backed during the Iran-Iraq war, peace with Syria might also lead to the end of Iranian patronage of anti-Israeli Hizbullah guerrillas operating from bases in south Lebanon.