How can two countries that have been in a state of war for more than half a century transform their relationship into one of hopeful but clear-eyed peace?
This is the challenge that faces Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa as they dive into the nitty-gritty of making peace starting today.
These two men met for the first time only in early December. But they have a solid basis on which to build their efforts. My own detailed study of the 52 months of face-to-face talks that these governments held between 1991 and 1996 revealed that a considerable proportion of the work needed for a peace agreement was completed at that time, and that - provided there is strong commitment to peacemaking from both national leaderships - a framework agreement between them could now be finalized within weeks.
Numerous events indicate that, in both countries, the requisite commitment is now in place.
Back in June, one of Barak's first gestures after taking office in Israel was to deliver some public plaudits to Syria's longtime President, Hafez al-Asad. Asad reciprocated in kind. Then, both leaders showed flexibility in the discussions that allowed the talks to resume, and both have since been direct in preparing their publics for the possibility of peace.
Conclusion of a strong peace between these two states can transform the strategic geography of the whole Middle East.
All parties understand that peace between Syria and Israel must be accompanied by peace between Israel and Lebanon, too. Then, for the very first time in its 52-year history as a modern state, Israel will no longer have any hostile state on its borders.
This will transform the quality of life for 6 million Israelis.
Their government can cut back, or possibly eliminate, the demands of its military conscription system. Israeli citizens can drive overland to Europe, or visit Syria's and Lebanon's many fabled archaeological and historical sites.
Three nations with strong commercial classes can start to plan a bustling transnational economy.
Peace will radically change the lives of 20 million Lebanese and Syrian citizens, too. The million internally displaced people of south Lebanon can return to rebuild homes, cities, and a regional economy devastated by Israel's 21-year-long military occupation. In Syria, the 500,000 citizens whose families were displaced when Israel captured Golan in 1967 will also be able to return home. The restoration of rights, dignity, and hope to the civilian communities of these two border regions will - along with the effective demilitarization of these zones - provide a sturdy social and political underpinning for the maintenance of peace.
True, there are forces on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide who remain distrustful of, or actively threatened by, the prospect of peace agreements on these two fronts.
In Israel, some are unwilling to see the 17,000 civilian settlers implanted in Golan since 1967 forced to leave their homes there. And many Israelis fear that if their troops leave the strategic Golan Heights, then Syrian troops will move in to seize the strategic advantages that the Heights provide. But the Israeli settlers in Golan always knew their presence there was illegal under international law.
They have had 32 years' use of land that belongs to others (the displaced Syrians), and now they need to leave. More than half of them have already indicated they are ready to do so.
As for Syrian troops returning to the Heights - Barak, like all Israeli negotiators before him, has always insisted that Israel needs strict guarantees from both Syria and international third-party mechanisms, that this will never happen. Given Barak's distinguished history at the pinnacle of Israel's military, Israeli citizens and their friends should be ready to trust him on that.
And what is the United States' interest in these peace talks? Americans have a strong interest in seeing the end of the state of war between Israel and the Arab states, and the building of links of peace and development among those neighbors. (Israel will also need to find ways to meet the needs of the Palestinians - both those inside historic Palestine and those whose families have lived as refugees elsewhere for the past 52 years.)
As always in peacemaking, timing is very important.
Right now - after three years of hardline government in Israel, but before possible succession uncertainties in Syria - all the ingredients for peace are present.
That may not last for long. "The one thing you can be sure of in the Middle East," says veteran Israeli analyst Zeev Schiff, "is that things never stay still for long." How much better if, when the region's inevitable next changes come, it has already been emptied of the risk of another all-out Arab-Israeli war.
*Helena Cobban's forthcoming book, 'The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond,' will be published by the US Institute of Peace later this month.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society