For the first time in the long, bloody history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, leaders of Syria and Israel seem ready--at the same time--to make peace with each other and consider compromises and concessions necessary to do a deal, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
With talks set to resume, probably next week, between Israeli and Syrian ambassadors, American mediators believe that the prospects for progress are better than at any time since the 1991 Madrid conference that formally launched the current effort to bring peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
Much of the optimism results from a new assessment of the intentions of Syrian President Hafez Assad, a wily and meticulous negotiator who in the past asserted that he was ready to make peace, but only on his own terms.
A senior U.S. official who accompanied Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the Middle East diplomatic shuttle that ended Wednesday said Assad now seems willing to engage in bargaining. But it is still far from certain that "what he's ready to sign up to is something that (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin can accept."
Nevertheless, Assad--who has bored and angered a succession of U.S. diplomats with long, historical and ideological monologues--now seems focused on the details of Israel's bargaining position.
"He is an intense listener," the official said. "He wants to know what you mean. (He asks) what exactly did Rabin say? What exactly did he mean? He parses everything."
For his part, Rabin has sent repeated signals that he is ready to deal. In private talks with the U.S. delegation, punctuated by public statements, Rabin insisted that he wants to make peace and asserted that he can win the backing of the Israeli public for a deal, even if it requires Israel to return all or most of the strategic Golan Heights to Syria.
Rabin, who has also had periods of taking an all-or-nothing stance, now sees a peace pact with Syria as the sort of dramatic development that might revive his disintegrating political fortunes.
Beset by a growing scandal in his Labor Party, Rabin trails Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, in opinion polls in advance of the prime ministerial election next year.
Christopher capped a nine-day Middle East trip, which he called the most satisfying of his 11 visits to the region, by announcing Tuesday that Israel and Syria will resume face-to-face negotiations. Those talks had been broken off last December.
The two nations' ambassadors to the United States--Israeli Itamar Rabinovich and Syrian Walid Moualem--will conduct the talks, which will focus, at first, on security implications of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
Although security details, such as demilitarized zones, limitations on troop deployments and early warning stations, seem wildly premature, because Israel and Syria have not yet agreed on far more basic issues, U.S. mediators hope that the two sides will find it easier to deal with nitty-gritty details than with more theoretical matters.
"We do have a judgment that, if we can resolve the question of security arrangements, it will give such a boost to this process that it will help to resolve all the other issues," a U.S. official said.
If Rabinovich and Moualem make progress in the security talks, the Syrian and Israeli military chiefs of staff will open their own negotiations, allowing the ambassadors to turn to other matters.
The army chiefs met last December, but their talks did not go well, something U.S. officials now blame on a failure to make adequate preparations.
Earlier rounds of Israeli-Syrian negotiations were hampered by the limited mandate of the Syrian representative. In a country where Assad makes all important decisions himself, there is little experience with delegating authority.
But Christopher said Rabin and Assad have promised to give Rabinovich and Moualem adequate authority to engage in the sort of split-the-difference bargaining required to reach agreement.
The United States also intends to play a more assertive role in these talks. Dennis Ross, Christopher's top strategist on Middle East negotiations, plans to participate in the Rabinovich-Moualem talks.