Their countries are technically still at war, but Syrian President Hafez Assad and the Israeli prime minister-elect, Ehud Barak, traded public compliments today in another sign the two leaders are eager to resume suspended peace talks.
In comments made to his biographer, journalist Patrick Seale, and published in the London-based newspaper Al Hayat, Assad said he considers Barak "a strong and honest man" who "can accomplish whatever he decides to do."
"There is a definite change" in Israel, Assad said in his first public comments about Barak's defeat of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in elections May 17. "I believe there is a real desire for peace."
Barak, in remarks made to Seale while the author was on a recent lecture tour in Israel, praised Assad for having created "a strong, independent, self-confident Syria" and called the country the "keystone of peace" in the region.
"The only way to build a stable, comprehensive peace in the Middle East is through an agreement with Syria," said Barak.
The published comments contributed to rising expectations that Israel and Syria are likely to resume peace negotiations after a three-year suspension. But despite the multiplying signs of willingness to bargain, direct contacts may be weeks, if not months, away.
In Israel, Barak is still trying to form his governing coalition and in doing so is sending mixed signals to the Arab world. After flirting with the comparatively dovish Shas party for several weeks, Barak seemed to change course abruptly this week by reopening negotiations with the hawkish Likud party, now headed by Ariel Sharon, one of the most prominent hard-line figures in Israel.
If Barak does include Likud in his government, that would mean Sharon, the outgoing foreign minister, would retain a prominent position -- perhaps as finance minister -- as well as a voice in any peace initiatives that Barak may pursue.
At the same time, a number of Arab nations, most notably Egypt, are calling for a full Arab summit to coordinate strategy toward the new Israeli leader. Summit proponents feel the two major negotiating tracks -- one dealing with Syria and the second with the Palestinians -- should be pursued at the same time. But Syria has scotched the summit idea, apparently wary of distractions from its own concerns.
Syria wants an Israeli withdrawal from its Golan region, captured in the 1967 Middle East War, while Israel seeks guarantees from Damascus that Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon would be secure as part of a comprehensive peace.
Israeli troops and a proxy Lebanese militia have controlled a strip of southern Lebanon for two decades, seeking to protect northern Israel from attacks by militia groups. Syrian-backed guerrillas from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah party have repeatedly harassed the Israeli troops, vowing to drive them from Lebanese soil.
Barak has said one of his chief aims is to end that conflict and bring Israeli troops home.
Correspondent Lee Hockstader in Jerusalem contributed to this report.