JERUSALEM, FEB. 13 -- Syria would be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist if Israel accepts self-determination for the Palestinians, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said today in Damascus.

Genscher, speaking after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, said that "Syria realizes that the recognition of the right of self-determination for the Palestinians also means that the right for Israel to exist is recognized and assured." For Arab leaders, Palestinian "self-determination" is synonymous with establishment of an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Syria, like most Arab states, has maintained a state of war with Israel since creation of the Jewish homeland in 1948, and recognition would represent a landmark change in Middle East politics. However, a statement issued in Damascus tonight on behalf of President Hafez Assad suggested that the country's policy had not substantially shifted.

Assad's statement said Syria seeks "a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, based on the U.N. resolutions, including Resolution 338, which provides for the convening of an international peace conference on the Middle East, for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and for securing the inalienable national rights of the Palestinian people."

Support for United Nations Resolution 338, which also implicitly backs Israel's right to secure borders, has been a longstanding part of Syrian foreign policy.

Israeli officials reacted skeptically tonight to Genscher's statement, saying they were doubtful it represented a change in Syrian thinking. Officials noted that several times in the past, Western dignitaries visiting Baghdad also have reported Syrian willingness to deal with Israel, but without any subsequent result.

U.S. and other Western diplomats reportedly are hopeful that in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Syria's place in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq can be parlayed into some process of rapprochement with Israel. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has said that Israel is ready to open peace negotiations with Syria, and some observers here say there are signs Shamir's government may be willing to compromise on the Golan Heights, the territory Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and subsequently annexed.

But some senior Israeli officials have been arguing recently that Syria under Assad is little better than Saddam Hussein's Iraq and that Damascus is likely to emerge after the war as leader of a radical Arab front that rejects U.S.-sponsored peace efforts.

These officials point out that Syria has been a reluctant member of the U.S. coalition and that Syrian media have been stressing that Iraq's greatest sin has been to distract Arab resources and energy from the struggle against Israel. Damascus also has complained about military and political support Israel has received from the West as a result of Iraqi missile attacks.