ARE the Syrians about to get the kind of deal that the Palestinians - for all the anguished ``glory'' of their years-long uprising - still can only dream of? United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher is in the Middle East this week, and there is a fair chance that he will emerge with the text of a new agreement between Israel and Syria. This will most likely include an outline of the final peace between them, as well as a defined deadline for implementation of its terms.
By contrast, 13 months have passed since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn; the finalizing and implementing of their agreement has fallen alarmingly behind its ``target timetable.'' The Palestinians, due to hold territory-wide elections last July, are still nowhere near them. The Israelis, due to have pulled out of West Bank towns by then, are still there.
The final shape of the settlement between the two peoples remains - by design of the Americans and Israelis - unknown. True, the challenge of peacemaking in each case is different. Israel's conflict with Syria has been a classic military confrontation. Since 1973, it has centered on the issue of control of the Golan Heights, a strategic strip of land that dominates both northern Israel and Syria's capital, Damascus.
Figuring out a demilitarization and early warning regime for the Golan is a straightforward technical issue. The first important step of disengaging the two warring armies was taken 20 years ago, in an agreement that has proved robust ever since.
Israel's conflict with the Palestinians has never been predominantly military. For decades each side saw it as a core political conflict that threatened its existence. Each side has tried at times to deny the validity of the other's existence. Americans are familiar with the pain of Israelis when they see Palestinian maps that do not acknowledge Israel's existence. Less familiar is the pain of Palestinians who saw attempts, especially by Israel's Likud party, to obliterate the word ``Palestinian'' and to rename occupied areas with Hebrew names.
The ruling groups have come to terms with each other. But disentangling the two peoples remains a difficult business. Even the first vital step of disengaging the Israeli Army from Palestinian civilian life remains woefully incomplete.
The Americans who designed the Madrid peacemaking framework in 1991 judged that the best way to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace would be to bow to the Israeli preference to leave the final outcome undefined. In the Israeli-Syrian track, they generally understood that President Hafez al-Assad, like Egypt's Anwar Sadat before him, would have little interest in entering a process whose outcome was not defined in advance.
If Mr. Christopher's mediation leads to an Israel-Syria breakthrough, the final military element of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be on its way to being dismantled. The remaining political conflicts, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, cannot be allowed to fester. There will be no lasting normalization for Israel with the bulk of its Arab neighbors until Palestinian aspirations for a normal national existence are met.
Can the Israelis and Palestinians reach a settlement by continuing along the ``fuzzy outcome'' path? The fuzziness increases fears on both sides that the final settlement won't meet their needs, while giving supporters of peace no clear goal to aim for. On some vital issues such as Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, the US position tacitly supports a continuing Israeli erosion of the juridical status quo.
It'll be great if Christopher unties the Syrian-Israeli knot. But much work remains to be done in the Israeli-Palestinian arena -
and that may require a new kind of American activism toward the goal of peace.