As Israel's new prime minister, Shimon Peres, presented his agenda to Israel's parliament last week, the empty chair of recently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seemed somehow to dominate the Knesset chamber. Still, Peres made it plain -- by his tone and by his focused message -- that he has his eyes on the future.

The prime minister hit hard at two themes: First, he emphasized that he means to open a dialogue with ultra-nationalist West Bank settlers and with religious Jews who oppose the Labor Party's peace initiatives. At the same time, with President Clinton's help, Peres intends to reach out to Syrian President Hafez Assad in hopes of striking a deal in the immediate future.

The need to quash internecine strife within the Jewish state has been the subject of considerable comment. Less so, the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough with Damascus.

But since Rabin's assassination, there have been signals from the Syrians that the Israelis interpret as positive. Although the Syrian leadership failed to express condolences upon Rabin's death, senior Israeli foreign ministry official Eitan Bentzur had a 45-minute meeting with a Syrian official of parallel rank at an international meeting in Barcelona just after the state funeral. "The Syrians are sending messages to us that they are prepared to work rapidly toward an agreement," said a high Clinton administration official.

Unmistakably positive signals -- even including praise of Peres himself -- have also manifested themselves in the Syrian press. Tishrin, a quasi-official Damascus-based daily, predicted that Peres, "unlike Rabin, will not give in to the extremists' pressure." Syrian radio has also spoken of a new era and a new spirit.

When he visited Israel recently, Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Special U.S. Middle East coordinator, brought Peres news of a new Syrian flexibility. In an interview, the Israeli prime minister said Ross told him the United States believes that "in the wake of the assassination, the Syrians have shown a renewed and very vivid interest in the peace process."

I asked Peres if he intends to press to restart the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which came to an abrupt halt in July. "Yes, I'm very much for it," he replied without hesitation. "That's why I'm going to the U.S. on Dec. 11th." As Peres sees it, "The remaining issues are Lebanon and Syria. . . . This will not be just the last negotiation but the end of wars in the Middle East, the end of belligerency."

In July 1994, when he was foreign minister, Peres allowed that Israel has "acknowledged Syrian sovereignty on the Golan Heights, time after time." At the time, he also noted a resolution taken unanimously by the Israeli government after the '67 war to the effect that Israel was willing to withdraw to the international boundary in exchange for full peace with Syria, security arrangements and the uninterrupted flow of waters from the Jordan River. (The 1967 resolution, to be sure, was rejected by the Syrians and subsequently annulled by the Israeli government in 1968.)

Is Peres, in his new position, willing again to acknowledge Syrian sovereignty over the Golan? Here, he is cautious: "Back in 1967, Israel suggested that in return for a real peace, we would be ready to withdraw to the international border, provided we could find the necessary answers to the security and water {issues}. I didn't say {this} about the present situation. You can't expect us to say what . . . will serve as our fallback position, without knowing . . . the Syrian position. . . . I say negotiations must be comprehensive -- they must include all the issues."

By talking of a "comprehensive" settlement, Israeli experts maintain, Peres intends to place on the negotiating table economic ties, normalization and cultural exchange at the same time as security issues, including the question of who will control Israel's Golan-based early-warning stations.

Indeed, before he arrives in the United States, Peres says he plans to develop a list of options designed to advance the negotiations with Syria. Peres's goals, according to Israeli Syrian specialist Moshe Ma'oz, include the prospect of a Pan-Arab/Israeli peace. In other words, Peres is looking to Assad not just to facilitate peace and economic normalization with Syria as well as with Lebanon -- which is controlled by Syria -- but also to serve as an intermediary who can help establish normal relations between Israel and key Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Peres's discussions with President Clinton about a negotiated settlement with Syria will doubtless deal with the fate of Israel's early warning stations on the Golan and on Mount Hermon. These facilities have long made it possible for Israel to learn whether Syria has offensive designs. Not surprisingly, Rabin believed that the early warning stations were essential to Israel's security; Rabin, moreover, held that they had to be manned by Israeli personnel. Peres, however, according to Ma'oz and others, believes that because the strategic balance in the area favors Israel, the future of the stations is less important than other concerns. Thus, Peres may well be open to turning the early warning facilities over to U.S. troops or even consider relinquishing them -- opting instead for aerial surveillance by American J-Stars, a sophisticated airborne electronic system that's been used primarily by the U.S. military.

On July 10, Radio Damascus indicated a measure of flexibility in this very matter, declaring that Damascus was ready to negotiate the future of the ground-based early warning stations. The following day, the broadcaster was fired and the report denied, but some Israelis continue to regard the broadcast as a signal that Syria may be willing to negotiate the fate of the early warning stations. Moreover, at one point, Syria even called for air surveillance by "a friendly third party."

Is the Israeli public prepared to accept a peace deal with Syria that turns on withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Peres insists that "a leader must be like a bus driver. He cannot turn his head all the time to see how the passengers feel."

The new prime minister recognizes that his predecessor was regarded as "Mr. Security" -- by Israelis: He knows that Rabin could persuade Israelis to make concessions they otherwise might not have been willing to consider. Still, Peres told me that if he can make peace before the next Israeli election (scheduled for October 1996), he will do so: "For me, to win peace is more important than to win elections."

But while Peres the statesman wants to strike a historic deal with Syria, Peres the politician wants to be reelected. Are the two goals mutually exclusive? Perhaps not, especially if he can deliver a peace with Syria that disarms Hezbollah, keeps Damascus from hosting other terror organizations and promises a more comprehensive agreement, including peace with other Arab states. In the past, Assad, after all, has kept his word to Israel. As Rabin noted, the Syrian ruler had proved his ability to deliver.

Peres concludes that "when you negotiate you must be inventive, because known solutions are dead solutions." His point takes on added resonance in the light of the fact that since 1984, even when he was prime minister, Shimon Peres has always had to take into consideration the opinion of Yitzhak Rabin -- by all accounts the more cautious of the two men. They made an excellent team, Peres acknowledges. But now, Peres is alone at the helm.