AFTER months of exchanging cold stares and pro forma declarations, signs of a thaw in Israeli-Syrian negotiations generated cautious optimism about the peace process here as talks resumed this week in Washington.
Evidence of a shift in Syria's attitude toward Israel's new Labor-led government was apparent not only in the handshakes and joint coffee breaks but in closed-door sessions. There, one Syrian delegate suggested that Damascus might recognize Israel and cancel the state of war in exchange for only a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights, senior Israeli sources revealed. Softer stance
Although the Syrian remarks during Wednesday's session were not presented as an official proposal, Israelis took it as an indication that the Syrians might soften their demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
The Syrian comment appeared to be a cautious response to Israeli remarks Monday and Tuesday indicating that it would consider a partial withdrawal from the Golan.
"We will not give up the Golan Heights, but that does not mean we have to cling to every single centimeter of land there," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a Knesset (parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting yesterday.
On Monday, the leader of Israel's negotiating team, Itamar Rabinovitch, broke ground by saying Israel was ready to apply UN Security Council Resolution 242 - which calls for territorial compromise - on the Golan.
Syria welcomed the change in Israeli tone, but said that it wanted to see detailed Israeli proposals on how it would implement the resolution. The head of the Syrian delegation, Muwaffaq al-Allaf, said: "The more territory, the more peace."
Israel, however, may be hard put to flesh out its recent overtures to Damascus in view of domestic opposition to major concessions on the Golan. The new overtures touched off a heated debate both in Labor circles and among its critics.
"From 1967 until now, Israeli governments did not include Syria and the Golan Heights in the issues covered by Resolution 242," said the National Religious Party's Avner Shaki, in a Knesset discussion. "We must not let the Syrians even dream that they will return to the Golan."
"We already have an excellent arrangement in the Golan, and every hill and valley has a strategic importance," said Yehuda Volman, a Labor Party supporter and head of the Golan Heights Regional Council.
While Israelis are divided on whether to retain control of the West Bank and Gaza, most consider the Golan a key strategic barrier - a consensus symbolized by the Knesset's extension of Israeli law to the Golan in 1981.
Foreign Ministry sources yesterday stressed that the 1981 law "does not foreclose the option of negotiations on a final settlement of the status of territories."
Still, even left-wing Israelis have felt little moral imperative to withdraw from the Golan since the 15,000-member Golan Heights Druze community - unlike Palestinians - enjoys the same legal rights as other Israelis.
The new Israeli government has pinned its hopes for quick progress in the talks more on the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Overtures by Mr. Rabin early this week - including the release of 800 Palestinian prisoners, the opening of sealed homes and streets in the occupied territories, and the cancellation of 11 deportation orders - underlined this emphasis. Upset by US decision
At the negotiating table, Israel offered the Palestinians detailed proposals for the transfer of self-government powers to an elected administrative council. (See story at right.) But Palestinians are suspicious, and are still upset about the recent United States decision to grant Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees in exchange for only a partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction - allowing Rabin to complete 10,000 apartments begun by the former Likud government.
Although Israelis note that they have been no reciprocal Arab gestures, Palestinians complain that Rabin's recent measures do not go far enough.
"The overtures are positive. But people want to see improvements in day-to-day life, such as an easing in taxes, an end to repression and arrests," said a young Palestinian in the West Bank city of Ramallah during a visit this week by Rabin.
As television crews filmed Israeli soldiers tearing down a roadblock in a Gaza Strip refugee camp Wednesday, some Palestinians saw it as an omen of peace and others as a government ploy.
"The road was opened for propaganda purposes," said Gaza journalist Taher al Shriteh. "It doesn't improve things substantively."