AMERICAN diplomacy, warming the Middle East atmosphere, has apparently brought Israel and Syria back to the bargaining table after a three-year lapse. It seems that President Clinton and Secretary Albright got the two governments to agree to resume negotiations in Washington next week. Syria's aging president, Hafez Assad, will not himself come; to indicate his reservations he is sending his foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, to talk face to face with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
The three-year holdup followed from the election of a hard-line Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Mr. Barak, elected earlier this year, brought lighter but far from airy political baggage. His coalition speaks for center-left parties committed to an exchange of territory for peace. But his government is also supported by a party drawing from Israel's 200,000 West Bank, Gaza and Golan settlers.
The first success of the American negotiators was to help find a way around Syria's earlier refusal to resume talks until Israel had agreed on Mr. Assad's alternative reading of exactly what he had been promised by the late Yitzhak Rabin. Now the tough substantive issues are on the table: Syria's demand for full Israeli withdrawal and security measures and for a Lebanon settlement, Israel's for security measures, peaceful relations and water security. The two countries also have their taut separate views of where the border between them should be drawn.
Syria and Israel have never been at peace. They have known war and are practiced in living side by side but apart. It will take a long political leap by the two to reach just to the cold start of a relationship that at best is bound to be wary and restricted for years.
On both sides, nonetheless, there seems to be a cautious readiness to face change. The next few weeks should begin to tell.