THREE years ago, the slogan of choice in the streets of Damascus, Syria, was former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's famous declaration: ``What was taken by force must be restored by force.''
Today, President Hafez al-Assad has found another - and one hopes more successful - solution to the conflict with Syria's neighbor, Israel. ``We have fought honorably, we are negotiating honorably, and we want an honorable peace,'' announce posters installed by the government around the Syrian capital.
Though the rhetoric has changed, Syria's basic goal regarding Israel remains the same. It is determined to retrieve all territories lost in the June 1967 war. But recent conversations with a wide spectrum of Syrians have established that Mr. Assad's transition from bellicosity toward Israel to peaceful dialogue with it is not simply a negotiating strategy. Rather it mirrors a general, albeit reluctant, Syrian willingness to come to terms with Israel, to move on to the business of pulling Syria into the 21st century.
In that sense, Vladimir Jabotinsky was correct. Some 60 years ago, the father of Israel's right-wing political tradition authored his famous theory of the ``Iron Wall.'' Mr. Jabotinsky argued that the Arabs would continue to battle Israel until they realized that it could not be defeated in war. Only then would they become reconciled to its existence.
Jabotinsky's prophesy has been realized in the streets and boardrooms of Damascus today. Syrians have not become Zionists by any means. Israel is still considered a foreign force that stole Palestine from its rightful owners. But while this historical account with Zionism remains open and unresolved, Syrians at all levels are reconciled to the need to make peace.
``It gives us satisfaction that we are the last ones to concede,'' explains George Jabbour, an adviser to the Syrian prime minister. Dr. Jabbour notes that just as Israel is surrendering much of its ideological zealotry in the context of negotiations - by establishing borders with Jordan and by awarding Palestinians a status in Gaza less oppressive than direct occupation - so too does the process produce ``pacifying ideological pronouncements from Damascus as well.''
``Syrians feel a historical resignation toward Israel,'' explains a noted intellectual. ``Syria is a truncated state. The Zionists usurped the land, and our sense of opposition to the imperial system devised at the end of World War I remains.''
Nevertheless, the anticipated rewards of rapprochement - greater freedom for the market economy and a diversion of scarce resources from the military to the civilian sector - cannot easily be denied. In recent years, the Assad government has been forced to loosen its hold on the domestic economy. It has awarded leading merchants greater opportunity to profit from imports, fostering the creation of what one Syrian calls the ``military-merchant complex.'' And in the last year alone, subsidies for basic goods have been slashed by 70 percent.
Yet Syria - which still prohibits the import of products as varied as refrigerators, furniture, and icemakers - has only begun the road to economic liberalization, whose pace and extent now more than ever is seen as intimately related to Assad's effort to find Syria's place in the post-cold-war world.
Antoine Malke has a workshop for making gold chains on the edge of Damascus's famed Hamadiyya market. His $6 million investment in machinery and 15 employees make Mr. Malke's shop the largest of its kind in the country. For him, peace with Israel means the prospect of greater employment, as manufacturers come to Syria to take advantage of low labor costs.
The market is voting for peace in other ways as well. Real estate prices between the capital and the Golan Heights 70 kilometers (43 miles) away are rising as entrepreneurs and speculators anticipate a demilitarization of the frontier, the introduction of a large contingent of free-spending international troops, and a boom in tourism.
Another example: As a civil engineer entering his last year of schooling, Fadi will earn $200 a month in his first job. ``Just enough to live,'' he says. But he will first have to serve the required two years of military service. Fadi, like his opposites in Tel Aviv, hopes for a personal ``peace dividend'' - a shortening of his career as a soldier.
``If Israel would just give [the Golan] back, there would be no problem,'' he says. Open borders, even an Israeli Embassy in Damascus, pose little problem in the streets and offices of Damascus.
But Syrians are looking for clearer evidence that their readiness to fulfill what they recognize is their part of the ``land for peace'' bargain is being reciprocated. ``We are looking for evidence of the re-education of Israelis'' toward peace, Jabbour says.
As seen from Damascus, the mixed messages emanating from Israeli officials have not presented a convincing portrait of an Israel prepared to make the required territorial concessions for peace. Nor is the Israeli public, which is deeply split on the advisability of a what Syrians consider a sine qua non, a complete pullout from the Golan - viewed as supportive enough of what one official called ``the logic of peace.''
* Geoffrey Aronson is the director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.