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Twilight hides progress in peace process

The snail-paced Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations are about to move another millimeter.

In a rare and revealing encounter, the chiefs of staff of the Israeli and Syrian armies will meet in Washington today to discuss security arrangements for an Israeli-Syrian peace accord on the Golan Heights. But don't try to catch a glimpse of their talks.

The Syrian and Israeli generals will be holding their widely advertised meeting at a secret location somewhere around Washington, but their spokesmen will brief reporters on the substance afterward. This weird half-secret, half-public twilight diplomacy tells you everything that is right and everything that is wrong with the Syrian-Israeli peace track.

What is right is that despite all the ups, downs and time-outs, the Syrians and Israelis keep expanding their dialogue. Five years ago, a meeting of their chiefs of staff was unimaginable. Today, it's barely news. The Clinton team deserves credit for keeping these two snails moving along.

What is wrong with the Syrian-Israeli track precisely is that it is trapped in the twilight. It does not involve the sort of daylight diplomacy _ a visit by Syria's president to Jerusalem _ that would really impress the Israeli people that Damascus is committed to normalizing relations.

And it doesn't involve the sort of midnight diplomacy Israel used with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the PLO to work out their grand peace bargains in advance, in private, so they could leave only the details to public diplomacy. (Prime Minister Rabin regularly complains in public that Syria's President Assad won't meet him in secret.)

Everyone knows what the grand bargain is _ full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan for full peace with Syria. But without a midnight or daylight encounter between Syrian and Israeli leaders, no breakthrough is possible.

So the talks are a kind of "faux Sadat" _ a bad imitation of Arabs and Israelis making peace. Why? Because the two sides are deeply ambivalent about this process.

Assad knows that in making peace he is not only ending the state of war between Israel and Syria but in some fundamental way would be ending the Arab-Israel conflict.

It would signal that the Jews are home in Palestine. For Hafez Assad, a diehard Arab nationalist, that is something to feel ambivalent about.

As for Israel, its ambivalence derives from the fact that after making peace with Egypt, Jordan and the PLO the romance is gone. Israelis know what peace with the Arab world is and "romance" is not the word to describe it. But the fear is gone as well. Syria has no military option. It has no Arab allies for a war against Israel. It has no Soviet ally for a war against Israel. And it has an economy 20 years behind Israel's. So a lot of Israelis ask themselves: "What do I really need this for?"

In a way, neither Israel nor Syria is sure that there is life after the death of their conflict. Sure, Israel knows there is a better world out there, but not whether the Arabs, even at peace, will want to go there with Israel. Sure, Syria knows there is a better world out there, but not whether, absent its vanguard role in the conflict with Israel, it can get a slice of it.

Those are not questions that can be resolved by generals meeting at an undisclosed army base in the diplomatic twilight. Those are questions that can only be resolved by their respective leaders in the Oval Office with President Clinton, because the problem between Israel and Syria now is not about defining borders. It's about defining the future. It's not about overcoming technical obstacles; it's about overcoming ambivalence. It's not about answering the question, "How do we make peace?" It is about answering the question, "Why should we?"

New York Times News Service