Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval was the center of attention Wednesday evening. With Washington abuzz with the announcement of Israel's planned talks with Syria here next week, he had plenty to talk about at a dinner in the Portuguese residence dining room. Portuguese Ambassador Jao Rocha Paris was giving one of the first black-tie farewells for the Shovals, who leave in January.

With a fountain trickling in the background, after the salmon, caper and lentil tartare appetizer, and just as the duck confit, spinach mousse and braised black figs were to be served, Shoval's cell phone went off. It was 4 a.m. in Tel Aviv. Who would have guessed that someone from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office would call with instructions for next week that needed Shoval's immediate attention? The Israeli ambassador was loving every minute of it.

After a nearly four-year freeze and endless shuttles to the Middle East by the State Department's peace negotiators, a diplomatic breakthrough may be at hand. Though no one is saying what drove Syrian President Hafez Assad back to the negotiating table, Israeli diplomats are telling their Arab counterparts in town that when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa and Barak put their heads together next week, a framework will be worked out within two days.

Middle East diplomats are guessing the Barak-Charaa meeting has something to do with the snag over what Syria considers its rightful border with Israel and what boundaries Israel thinks would ensure its security. So is the answer in what was said about talks picking up where they left off, or in what was left unsaid?

"We always know the risk of waking up one morning to see the government has fallen," said Shoval of his experience last May 17, when Binyamin Netanyahu lost to Barak. "C'est la vie, or as the French ambassador [Francois Bujon de L'Etang] would say, 'C'est la vie politique.' Now I have to organize next week's talks, which is really fun. It is nice to conclude our service here with a bang and not just [go] from one party to another."

Shoval said he would advise all ambassadors to serve in Washington a second time, as he has done. His first stint ended in 1993. "When I left six years ago, I deliberated with myself about writing a book," he said. "If it were very diplomatic, it would be boring. If I wrote an interesting book, I know I will not be back. So if you read a really fascinating book, you will know I will not be coming back a third time."

And the subject of his book? "It will not be kiss and tell, but . . . "

Tucked into a tuxedo with a digital phone stuck to one ear, his back turned to a table decked with crystal and silver, Shoval looked very much the diplomat at the end of the millennium. The tedium of telegrams, pigeons, scrolls and long camel journeys was no longer necessary to expedite the affairs of state.

But not so fast. At a speech on globalization and economics the previous day at the Inter-American Development Bank, the first day of Hanukah, Shoval told his audience: "I know we are approaching the millennium--but as you may know, according to the Jewish calendar, we have another 240 years to go. And, as I am also a banker, let me say: not to worry. Israeli banks are well prepared for Y2K and Y6K."

When Duty Calls

The weather feels like October, and there's not a hint of snow in the air, but that hasn't stopped embassies from having their holiday parties. The Australians, the Irish, the Panamanians and the Germans all hosted festivities on schedule.

German ambassador Juergen Chrobog welcomed 100 or so guests to a Christmas concert Tuesday night by quoting Rudyard Kipling: "Call a truce, then, to our labors--let us feast with friends and neighbors, and be merry as the custom of our caste."

But the ambassador was forced to excuse himself before the Washington Bach Consort had completed selections by Bach and Handel. He had to leave for the airport to catch a flight to Berlin, where he had been summoned, along with German ambassadors in Moscow, London and other major capitals, to consult on Chechnya.

Diplomatic life does not consist only of celebrations, the ambassador reminded his guests. "There are also conferences on pressing international issues . . . and it is one of these . . . which will compel me to call for a sleigh and reindeer--and some United Airlines elves--to whisk me off to Germany later this evening," he said. But he was not a scrooge. The heavenly music continued, followed by a sumptuous dinner.

Don't Say Goodbye

Argentina's Ambassador Diego Ramiro Guelar, who tantalized Washingtonians with Argentine beef and tango, gave his farewell party Tuesday. But the real story is that he is staying for a while. His Peronist Party was defeated last October when the opposition Alliance swept in with Fernando de la Rua as president.

De la Rua asked Guelar to stay put for now before becoming minister for investment and exports for Buenos Aires province. "For the first time we are all . . . partners in the same system, and we have to keep the boat floating," Guelar said in an interview.