WASHINGTON -- The persuasive powers of Secretary of State James A. Baker III will be put to a severe test when he arrives in Israel today to convince highly skeptical Israelis that Syria is suddenly and genuinely interested in Middle East peace.
Mr. Baker's mission was bolstered by Saudi Arabia's promise yesterday to drop the Arab boycott of Israel in return for Israel's ceasing settlement of occupied Arab territory. But Israel is less concerned about the positions of Saudi Arabia, with which it has no borders, and pre-emptively rejected that offer.
Secretary Baker's real task will be to persuade hard-line Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose coalition government could be thrown into crisis by the apparent Syrian shift, that no secret deals were struck to get Syrian President Hafez el Assad to accept the idea of direct negotiations with Israel that he previously had rejected.
"The first and probably among the most difficult things Baker will have to establish is Shamir's confidence that he has not been set up or sold," said Harvey Sicherman, a former speech writer to Mr. Baker and currently adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy. "I would say that Shamir and company smell a rat."
Mr. Baker's success in Syria on his tour of the Arab world last week to enlist top-level endorsement of President Bush's modified proposal for a Mideast peace conference now puts the pressure fully on Israel.
"The dynamic here obviously is the more Syria gives the United States to play with in its initiative, the greater the buildup of pressure on Israel. That is obviously what the Israelis don't like. Before this, the Syrians never gave us anything," said a Middle East expert on Capitol Hill.
"The pressure is very definitely building on the Israelis to be positive," he added. "I don't think Shamir will say 'No.' Whether he will find a way to sort of say 'Yes,' which is not fully 'Yes,' or whether he will force the secretary to go back to the other side for further clarification, I don't know."
Either way, Mr. Shamir is unlikely to be rushed into a formal response before he is satisfied that he has seen the finest print, heard the lowest whisper and assessed the briefest wink exchanged between Mr. Baker and the Syrian leader.
His caution will reflect the Israeli popular mood. Israelis view Mr. Assad as an arms-hungry warmonger, a patron of terrorism and an inveterate liar. But there is also the enduring hope that the Jewish nation will one day live in peace with its Arab neighbors.
"Given all this, you can't blame Israelis for being a little suspicious but wanting to be convinced," said an Israeli source, who asked not to be identified.
Israel's anxieties are plentiful. It worries whether:
* Syria's interest in peace is genuine.
* The U.S.-Syrian agreement marks a radical change in the United States' Mideast relationships that would endanger the close relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
* The U.S.-Syrian understanding might involve, in the words of the Israeli source, "more than meets the eye." Mr. Shamir almost certainly will ask to see the letter President Bush sent to President Assad on June 1, as well as the full text of Mr. Assad's reply and all U.S.-Syrian exchanges since then.
"How much the secretary will tell him, or whether he will show him the letter, is up to Baker. The secretary has said there will be nothing said to each party that is not known to the others. Shamir will have to trust him on that."
* The United States has moved toward the Syrian interpretation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and peace negotiations.
Syria maintains that 242 mandates the return of all territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Such an interpretation could require Israel to return all of the Golan Heights annexed by Israel in 1981 and to give up the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Shamir government has said it will never do.
Formally, the Israelis maintain that the resolution does not define how much territory should be returned and that the precise amount is subject to peace negotiations. Mr.Shamir's position, a basic tenet of his governing Likud bloc, is that Israel gave up 90 percent of the Arab territory captured in 1967 when it returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt for a peace treaty in 1979.
Said the U.S. official: "Our own interpretation is that the land-for-peace formula leaves open the whole question of how much land for how much peace." Each side would come to the negotiating table with its own interpretation, he added.
The Israelis are also concerned that the United States and its peace conference co-sponsor, the Soviet Union, would weigh in on Syria's side and against Israel if negotiations stalled on the return of the Golan Heights, the major outstanding issue between the two countries.