A map of the Golan Heights on yesterday's front page contained several errors. A corrected map appears on Page A17 today. (Published 01/07/2000)

For a generation, American dignitaries, investors, journalists and politicians who visited Israel have observed a ritual. Their Israeli hosts would take them to the Golan Heights, the majestic plateau to the north, and impress on them the grave threat its loss would represent for the security of the Jewish state.

From one commanding bluff, visitors would ooh and aah as they gazed down on the Israeli city of Tiberias, within easy artillery range of the overlook. Before Israel captured the heights in the 1967 Middle East war, Syrian artillery gunners had this very same view, the hosts would point out. From an Israeli monitoring station atop Mount Hermon, a few visitors were allowed to peer through high-powered binoculars, right into the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital barely 30 miles to the north.

More often than not, the visitors got the point: Israel would be mad to give up such a strategic asset.

Yet in the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations underway in Shepherdstown, W. Va., giving up the Golan Heights is very much on the table. That Israel is now prepared to make such a concession--even in return for formidable security guarantees from the Syrians and military aid from the United States--represents a profound shift in the country's strategic, military and political thinking over the past decade.

The gradual shift reflects an assessment here that Syria's military and economic strength has been greatly sapped by the collapse of its Soviet patrons and the fluctuation in oil prices. At the same time, Israel's own edge, particularly in the evolving high-tech know-how of modern warfare, has rapidly outpaced its traditional enemies'.

In addition to that assessment, Israel is counting on a major injection of military aid from the United States to ensure that it suffers no net security loss. A Pentagon official said Israel has a shopping list for American military assistance worth between $10 billion and $20 billion, including--according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz--Tomahawk cruise missiles, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, Airborne Warning and Control System planes and a laser-based missile defense system.

"The more you give back, the more expensive it becomes," said retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former chief of the Israeli army's Strategic Planning Division.

The shift in Israeli thinking about the Golan is by no means unanimous or popular. Publicly, some retired generals have voiced doubts; privately, so have active-duty officers.

Throughout Israeli society, there is general unease at the prospect of returning to borders that seem to leave little breathing room. The Golan is half the size of Rhode Island, but Israelis often say it gives them a sense of space--a buffer and a frontier.

Still, among Israel's leading strategic thinkers, as well as in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff, there is a widely held view that while the Golan remains important, Israel today enjoys strategic and military advantages greater than any in its 52-year history.

"What's really happened in the last 10 years--and it took until this year for the Israeli military establishment to really acknowledge this--is that the Syrian military capability has deteriorated much faster than anybody could have imagined," said Gerald Steinberg, a scholar at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

The evolving Israeli strategic thinking was outlined most thoroughly last month by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. A half-dozen analysts from the center, including former top army officers, held a news conference to mark the publication of "The Middle East Military Balance 1999-2000," a 480-page reference for regional strategists.

In their presentation and publication, the analysts argued that the time was ripe for a settlement with Syria. They said return of the Golan could be offset by a beefed-up Israeli military and such security guarantees as early-warning systems and demilitarization of Syrian territory near the heights.

More broadly, they made these points:

* Syria, in debt to Russia and weakened by unsteady prices for oil, its major source of hard currency, has concluded no major arms deals since 1993.

* What limited modernization Syrian ground forces have undertaken was halted several years ago.

* The Israeli air force, the best in the region, has a formidable edge over Syria's, which is smaller and equipped with mostly outdated planes, and this provides Israel with a clear-cut battlefield advantage.

* The Israeli military, alone in the region, is capable of absorbing the dramatic changes in modern warfare stemming from technological innovations and the information revolution.

"No one is discounting the advantage of topography or territory, period," said Shai Feldman, head of the Jaffee Center. "But the bottom line is that for now the region remains stable. There are no serious threats to Israel's security and survival."

The center released its study just after the opening round of Israeli-Syrian talks in Washington, the first in four years, prompting protests from Damascus. In Israel, too, there were dissenters.

"Even in the missile age it is impossible to defend Israel effectively against a ground attack without military control of the Golan Heights," wrote former defense minister Ariel Sharon, now the chairman of the opposition Likud party, in The New York Times. "Syria has more than 4,000 tanks and 1,000 missiles, and the last and only line where an assault by them could be stopped runs through the center of the heights."

At the same time, Israeli analysts say it is critical that the United States not equip Syria with the most modern and lethal arms as a reward for signing a peace deal. They say there is no substitute for the deterrent value of Israeli tanks poised atop the Golan, and they question how a steady and sincere peace can be reached with a closed dictatorship like Syria's.

"The peace we are going to sign is so risky that we need $10 billion or maybe $15 or $20 billion to compensate for our giving up [the Golan]," said retired Maj. Gen. Avraham Rotem, a scholar at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "So what kind of peace are they talking about?"

Nonetheless, other strategists--including, apparently, Barak--believe the Israeli military could make up for the loss of the Golan. They said it would need to add attack and transport helicopters to make its forces lighter, faster and more mobile and to retain access to real-time intelligence from the monitoring station on Mount Hermon and other sources.

Israeli arms installations in the Golan would have to be relocated south of the international border to the northern Galilee region, and the border itself would have to be fortified.

Brom, the former army strategic planning chief, said Israel needs 48 hours notice in case of attack to mobilize its reserves. But with monitoring and intelligence systems in place, a demilitarized zone in the south of Syria and a faster, more mobile Israeli army, the loss of the Golan could be offset, he said.

"It is quite possible to have reasonable arrangements," he said.

Said Feldman, the head of the Jaffee Center: "Israel's overall strategic situation is far, far superior to what it was 25 years ago." That, he said, should provide impetus to nail down a comprehensive peace accord with Syria and ease tensions on Israel's northern border. But, he added: "We don't see the window open forever."

CAPTION: Students at a Syrian school for refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights read news about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in West Virginia.