AS the Middle East peace talks resumed in Washington yesterday, the internal Israeli debate over the prospect of trading territory on the Golan Heights for peace with Syria reached a frantic pitch.
Not since the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977 has the prospect of peace with an enemy Arab state so electrified Israelis. Nightly news broadcasts are dominated by the latest Israeli and Syrian statements, protests by the Golan's Jewish settlers, and even rabbinical pronouncements on the merits of returning the Golan.
But as the talks with Syria overshadow the Palestinian issue, Israeli strategists warn the negotiations are likely to take months and maybe years. The talks are already eliciting mixed emotions.
"First of all we don't trust this guy," says Zeev Eytan of Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, referring to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. "We have to be definitely sure that he intends to make a genuine peace."
In a document presented in Washington earlier this month, the Syrian delegation outlined an unprecedented proposal for a peace agreement in exchange for territory, and also recognized Israeli security needs.
"There is a new attitude. It's coming straight from [President] Assad in Syria. It's being treated very seriously - not as some propaganda ploy," says a senior Israeli military source. "But we're still a long way from anything substantial. These types of things take time."
Syria has so far avoided speaking about a "contractual" peace treaty with Israel or about normalizing relations. But without these steps, there will be no talk of pullbacks, new borders, or "drawing of maps," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned last week.
Syria also has continued to assert publicly that it will settle for nothing less than a complete Israeli withdrawal from every inch of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. That remains a very remote possibility, even for Rabin's new center-left government, which ousted the right-wing Likud Party in June.
To elicit a real compromise, Israeli officials are now hinting that top-level, secret contacts between Israel and Syria will have to take place alongside formal peace negotiations. Rabin recalled last week that a secret meeting in Morocco between an Egyptian envoy and former Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan helped pave the way for Sadat's historic visit.
"The Syrians have not revealed all of their cards and neither have we," Rabin said.
No one knows just what cards the prime minister may play, but last week he declared that "`peace, of course, implies some sort of territorial compromise."
The various schemes for an Israeli pullback being debated publicly here range from minor one- or two-mile adjustments in Israeli positions on the Golan's eastern border, to radical plans for a virtual total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to lines occupied prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
The eventual solution, some Israeli strategists believe, may be an Israeli military withdrawal to an agreed-upon middle point in the 11-mile-wide Golan plateau, and a long-term "leasing" arrangement to reconcile the continued presence of Jewish settlements with Syrian claims of sovereignty.
"I doubt that the Syrians would accept a withdrawal from just two or three kilometers of the Golan," observes Mr. Eytan. "What has to be explored is whether we can get a border which may not be as good as the present line, but is not as bad as the 1967 line."
Prior to 1967, Syrian fortifications were perched on the western edge of the Golan, and frequently shelled Israeli settlements in the Jordan River Valley and along the Sea of Galilee. Syrian positions also controlled a key source of Israel's drinking water.
Since 1967, however, Israeli forces have positioned theselves on the high ground at the eastern edge of the Golan plateau, overlooking Syrian positions in the desert extending east to Damascus, just 45 miles away.
"On the eastern edge of the Golan there is a series of hills running north-south, which dominate the area in terms of observation points, first positions," says Mark Heller, another strategist at the Jaffee Center. "A pullback behind those lines would have very clear military disadvantages in terms of ability to defend against possible attack."
A withdrawal to some middle point in the Golan plateau would still be better than Israel's pre-1967 postion in the Jordan River Valley, the strategists say.
Yet to make even a partial withdrawal workable, Israel would likely seek a reduction in the Syrian standing Army and demilitarization of the area between the Golan and Damascus.
Syria currently maintains a 550,000-man Army, including 400,000 regular soldiers, as compared to Israel's force of 170,000 regulars and about 430,000 reservists, Israeli strategists believe. Most of the Syrian troops are grouped in and around Damascus.
Given the close proximity of the Golan to such large troop concentrations, even a demilitarized zone and early warning installations would not give Israel ample time to respond to a sruprise Syrian attack, Israeli strategists say.
"Sure, if Syria were to reduce its Army to one division and a camel brigade, we could come down from the Golan. But that's theoretical," said Uzi Keren, a reserve Army brigadier general and Golan veteran, speaking to Israel Radio. "But to talk about demilitarization of 30 kilometers (18 miles) is ridiculous when we know very well that a tank army can cover that area in five or six hours."