Measured Optimism

ISRAELIS and Syrians resumed negotiations this week with new optimism. But the same old questions hover: Can Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights be reconciled with its security needs? Can Syria accommodate such needs?

This time, however, those questions appear less likely to stop peace talks before they really get moving. The political context for securing this crucial third leg of the current Middle East peace tripod (after Jordan and the Palestinians) has changed.

On the Israeli side, Shimon Peres, having taken over from the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, promises to accelerate the process of finding peace with Syria. While he's no more likely than was Rabin to sacrifice Israeli security interests, he's known to put less stock in the idea of the Golan as a critical buffer against attack. Prime Minister Peres's central goal, and the centerpiece of his security thinking, is a peace agreement with Syria that includes fully normalized relations.

Progress toward that goal, along with progress on the Palestinian peace front, may also be his best chance of retaining the prime ministership in next year's Israeli elections.

Syria's absolute leader, Hafez al-Assad, doesn't have to worry about electoral politics. But he has to worry about being left in the dust by the Jordanian and Palestinian peace processes. With Palestinian elections coming up next month, and with commercial deals starting to take shape among its once warring neighbors, Syria could be odd man out.

Assad has made it clear he thinks it's time to move ahead, and that Peres could be a good partner for peace.

Both Syria and Israel thus appear poised for productive talks. Both understand what the elements of ultimate agreement have to be, and both appear willing to show flexibility and not get immediately, and hopelessly, hung up on questions concerning Israeli withdrawal.

That doesn't mean a glide toward peace. Sharp differences over details will remain. And in the background will be the shrillness of Israeli popular and political opposition to leaving the heights captured in 1967, where 13,000 Israelis live and thousands hike and ski every year. The area is a valuable watershed as well.

Israelis are also acutely aware, however, that peace with Syria could be the final cog in regional stability, bringing with it an end to hostilities in southern Lebanon and further isolating the chief threats to regional calm, Iraq and Iran.

In these talks, more than the other Mideast negotiations, American mediation will be key. US diplomats may have to play a more active role, presenting proposals to the sides rather than taking a hands-off, "they have to do it themselves," approach.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher could gear up the process later next month when he starts a new round of shuttle diplomacy. He'll try to build on any goodwill established in the current, carefully sheltered preliminary talks near Washington.

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