LIKE strangers on a first date, the Israelis and Syrians sat together over candlelight dinner at a wooded retreat on the eastern shore of Maryland, with the United States playing chaperon. When they met at breakfast the next morning, they awkwardly exchanged pleasantries. ''How'd you sleep?'' one official reportedly asked another. The question is routine enough - except for the fact that nations at war never sleep very well, and these two countries have lived in such a state for 47 years.
Getting from war to peace - that was the goal of the quiet rendezvous that took place over the past two weeks, as the Israelis and Syrians met away from the news media and public spotlight. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher is visiting the Middle East this week to build on the progress he says was made at the Maryland talks. But a simple question still looms: After four decades of war, what is meant by peace between Israel and Syria?
Peace, in its simplest form, is the absence of war. But peace is also a state of mind - a mode of political behavior, a form of social and economic interchange used by individuals and nations when they are determined to coexist.
It is this broader, more all-encompassing peace package that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres instructed his negotiators to talk about with Syria. Israel is not interested in a simple exchange of land for peace. Giving up the Golan Heights must be accompanied by a transition from Arab-Israeli enmity to normal regional relations.
That would mean Syrian tourists could visit Jerusalem, and Israelis could drive through Damascus en route to anywhere. It would mean joint business projects, investments, and trade. It would mean the Israeli ambassador to Syria and the Syrian ambassador to Israel could fly their flags safely over their embassies. It would mean security, not only in military terms, but in the language of human relations.
Will Syrian President Hafez al-Assad accept such a ''peace package'' from Mr. Peres? What is the Syrian definition of peace? That was the essence of those long walks and talks in Maryland. And at the end of the day, much will depend on whether or not Mr. Assad can look into the future. If the Syrian president cares about his people and his own personal place in history, he'd be wise to take advantage of an opportunity for change. The peace package with Israel contains many potential pluses for Syria. And there may not be another season of peace quite like this one.
Assad is 65 years old and, according to recent reports, in poor health. He is the longest-serving nonroyal Arab leader in the Middle East, with the exception of Libya's Muammar Qadafi. Like most men of power, Assad cares about how he is viewed in Syria, in the Middle East, and in the broader sweep of history.
By reaching an agreement with Israel, he could ensure his legacy at home, as the man who got the Golan Heights back for his people. In the Arab world, he would be viewed by many as having joined the 20th century. With the Jordanians and the Palestinians having reached accommodation with Israel, Assad cannot afford to remain the regional spoiler. And outside Syria, particularly in the West, his image might evolve from leader of a nation that sponsors terrorism to peacemaker.
The peace dividend for Assad is real. Syria's foreign debt is estimated to be $20 billion, most of it owed to the former Soviet Union, which no longer provides much economic support. Participation in the peace process would buy Assad a ticket into the economic club of businesspeople who are busy meeting in places such as Amman and Casablanca, Morocco, to figure out how to make money in the Middle East.
The Middle East peace process has already allowed Israel to expand its overseas investments into countries as far away as South Korea. If Syria enters the game, it would be an attractive market for Asia, Europe, and the US. And there's room for economic expansion within the region: Six percent of Mideast trade is regional, compared with 60 percent in most other areas of the world. Peace with Syria would mean a boom in hotels, road construction, and consumer products.
But Syria remains on America's terrorist list - not a good place to be if you're interested in access to international markets. Peace between Israel and Syria would no doubt force Congress and the administration to take a second look at Syria's status (taking into consideration progress on the drug and terrorism fronts as well). Syria's removal from the terrorism list would allow US firms to export technology and to engage in financial transactions with Damascus.
For Syria, the risks all closed societies face in opening up to the outside world are the downside of buying into a peace package. Assad's authoritarian hold on Syria might erode over time as economic liberalization leads to an appetite for political freedom. But Assad must know that nations that live in the past get left behind.
Assad has in Peres a potential peace partner - a man willing to give up valuable land for something whose value has no price tag. But Peres leads a divided nation unsure that any peace with Syria is true peace. Peres faces an election battle in November. If he loses, the window of opportunity for peace with Syria may close.
Assad has in Mr. Christopher a man determined to broker the peace with Israel - fairly. Christopher has the credibility on both sides to play a critical role in getting the two sides to overcome obstacles. Next November, President Clinton faces an election battle. If he loses, or if Christopher decides not to stay in his post, the momentum of the peace process could be lost.
The time for peace between Israel and Syria has come. Let's hope Assad is listening.