After a shaky start on Wednesday, Syria and Israel yesterday wrapped up two days of peace talks in an atmosphere of civility and guarded optimism, agreeing to return to Washington for a new round of "intensive" negotiations starting Jan. 3.

The plan was announced at 4 p.m. yesterday by President Clinton in a brief appearance outside the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, whose discussions here constituted the highest-level contact ever between the two neighboring states.

Although the highly secretive talks--the first between Israel and Syria in almost four years--were described as largely focused on procedure, U.S. officials indicated that Barak and Charaa also had delved into more substantive matters, including the possibility of unspecified "confidence-building measures" and cooling off the latest round of fighting in southern Lebanon.

Notwithstanding Charaa's public remarks Wednesday, in which he revisited a list of grievances against the Jewish state, U.S. officials described the Syrian envoy's private discussions with Barak as businesslike but friendly, with occasional personal asides as the two men faced each other across a conference table.

"Both Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Charaa spoke very movingly about peace, the importance of peace to their people," said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who presided over the discussions at Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

"They spoke about each other as partners and neighbors," she added in a briefing for reporters. "And so that leads me to believe that despite the difficulties which we all know will exist, it does make me believe that this can be done."

After their brief public appearance with Clinton this afternoon, during which neither Barak nor Charaa uttered a word, the president placed his hand on the small of each man's back and ushered them inside, where he showed them the White House Christmas tree, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said in a telephone interview.

In an effort to "personalize this a bit," Berger added, Clinton chatted with Charaa about his background as a student of English literature and Barak's training as a physicist. "I think it was generally a friendly atmosphere though clearly in the context of a real caution on both sides," Berger said.

Talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 1996. After Barak's election in May, the Clinton administration struggled to find a formula that would bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. The resumption of talks was announced by Clinton last week following a meeting between Albright and Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus.

The new beginning has generated soaring hopes for a settlement whose basic outlines--the return to Syria of the Golan Heights in exchange for Syrian guarantees of peace and security for Israel--are well known. During his initial appearance with Clinton and Barak in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, however, Charaa surprised U.S. and Israeli officials with a blunt, accusatory statement that Berger yesterday described as "a bit of a throwback to the old rhetoric."

Charaa and Barak did not shake hands during the two days of talks. On the other hand, analysts said, Charaa in his remarks Wednesday did not repeat Syria's demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to the border of June 4, 1967, the eve of the Six-Day War.

That is a potentially significant omission: Israel is reluctant to withdraw to that line because it would bring Syria to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which supplies the Jewish state with much of its water.

"Over the past 48 hours, Israel and Syria have taken critical steps in the journey toward peace," Clinton said in his statement yesterday afternoon. "That journey will be a difficult one. But with courage and perseverance on both sides, the result will be deeply rewarding to the people of Israel and to the people of Syria."

State Department officials were busy yesterday scouting the Virginia and Maryland suburbs for a suitable location--possibly a military base or conference center--to hold the next round of talks, which will run through Jan. 9. The administration already has ruled out Camp David--scene of the landmark peace deal between Egypt and Israel two decades ago--for symbolic reasons: Syria was deeply critical of the accord.

The administration also has ruled out the Wye River Plantation in Maryland because it has served as a site for Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians. Assad has been one of the harshest Arab critics of the Palestinian-Israeli accords.