WHEN Round 6 of the Middle East peace talks began Aug. 24, diplomats here were predicting steady progress in talks between Israelis and Palestinians over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They wondered openly how a separate peace might affect another key party to the peace process: Syria.
As the round ended yesterday, diplomats were contemplating a remarkable turnabout. Suddenly, Israel and Syria are pressing toward a potentially historic breakthrough, while talks over the occupied territories have reached an apparent impasse.
At press time, Israeli and Syrian negotiators were seeking agreement on a joint statement of principles to guide future talks, expected sometime after the United States elections in November. Even if they come up short, analysts say, the talks may mark a significant turning point for the old adversaries, who have quarreled for 25 years over the strategic Golan Heights.
The progress has sharpened a conviction that, for the first time in the 45-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the preconditions for peacemaking are in place. The year-old peace process has acquired a life of its own, many diplomatic observers say, suggesting the possibility of a near-term breakthrough.
"We are speaking about months, not years and not generations," Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told a group of Middle East specialists Wednesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Bilateral peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors, also including Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, began last October in Madrid. Multilateral talks on regional issues, including arms transfers and water resources, are moving on a separate track on an intermittent basis in several cities around the world.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were expected to proceed on the fastest track. The two sides agree in principle on the desirability of elections to create an Arab body that would institute at least partial self-rule for Palestinians during a five-year interim period. But as talks adjourned yesterday, the parties remained far apart over whether the body should be a large legislature or a small administrative council; whether it should be independent or accountable to Israeli law; and whether the territor ies should eventually be independent or merely autonomous.
Israel's talks with Syria, which seemed headed for deadlock two weeks ago, got a new lease on life by an unprecedented exchange of gestures. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad announced last week that he was ready for a "real peace" with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin offered to trade some land to get such a peace, so long as Israel retains a military presence and some Jewish settlements on the Golan.
The two sides will seek to capitalize on this opening by increasing efforts to reconcile Syria's demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan with Israel's insistence on a formal peace, including diplomatic recognition, trade relations, and open borders. Separate from the issue of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan - which it captured in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981 - is the question of sovereignty, which both sides claim.