THE FIRST ROUND of substantive talks between Israel and Syria in several years, which wrapped up yesterday in Shepherdstown, W. Va, after a week of fits and starts, lacked any of the sense of reconciliation that infused Israel's Oslo negotiations with the Palestinians or the Camp David talks with the Egyptians. The public signals from Damascus, even during the talks themselves, were resentful and cold, and the Syrian leadership seems utterly uninterested in convincing the Israeli public--which will ultimately vote on whether to ratify a deal--that it is serious. Despite the Israeli government's apparent willingness to make deep territorial concessions on the Golan Heights, Syria has been reluctant to specify, without a promise in advance that Israel will yield the whole strategic plateau, the security arrangements and normalization of relations it would grant in return. While some discussion of these issues did take place in Shepherdstown, the procedural wrangling over the agenda's priorities sent an unmistakable message: Syria may be eager to reap the rewards of peace, but it views peace itself as a necessary evil.
On the Palestinian track, a people's self-determination is at issue, but there is no great moral imperative for Israel to reach an agreement with Syria's dictator, President Hafez Assad. And in contrast to the behavior of then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the Camp David process, Mr. Assad has done his best to ensure that, at least in his lifetime, nobody will confuse peace with Syria with any sort of rapprochement between two peoples. So for Israel, a deal with Syria is worth doing only if its tangible benefits outweigh the loss of an important strategic asset such as the Golan. Its viability stands or falls on the coldest of calculations.
There are conceivable arrangements with Syria that would meet that test. If the Golan were returned to Syria but demilitarized, if Israel was allowed to maintain early warning systems there, Syrian forces were deployed differently, relations between the countries were truly normalized and the planned Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon facilitated--then an agreement would be a significant accomplishment. To the extent Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak believes--as he clearly does--that he can enhance Israel's security by dealing with the Syrians, he is certainly correct to explore the possibility. But the success or failure of these talks, which are due to resume next week, should not necessarily be measured by whether they produce an agreement. Mr. Assad's declining health and President Clinton's dwindling time in office both create pressure for a quick settlement. But the Israeli-Syrian front is stable, and likely to remain so as long as Israel maintains a military edge. A good agreement is more important than a fast one, and Israel should not be pushed into anything but a good agreement.