TEL AVIV, Israel -- If anyone in Israel has celebrated the possibility of Middle East peace talks, the celebration has gone largely unseen. The prospect of negotiations involving Israel, XTC Palestinians and Arab states has failed to convince Israelis that the region could become less volatile.
"It's still too theoretical," said Ardie Geldman, a member of the town council in Efrat, a West Bank settlement. "It's just not tangible. It's this meeting, that meeting, someone promising this, someone promising that. We're just standing by to see what really happens."
Public opinion polls consistently show that Israelis overwhelmingly favor peace talks but are not automatically equating a peace treaty with security. Israel's continued control over disputed territory is, in some cases, preferred to a treaty signed on the condition that Israel give up the land.
Surveys find a large majority supporting negotiations with Syria. But a majority also opposes giving up even a part of the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
Throughout months of headlines about regional peace talks, officials have consciously tried to keep public expectations low.
"There are still many outstanding questions," Deputy Foreign Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said after yesterday's announcement in Moscow.
Parties to the right of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud bloc warned that the United States was pressuring Israel unfairly by announcing a time for negotiations to begin; left-wing parties called for Israel to accept the U.S.-Soviet invitation immediately.
Police Minister Ronnie Milo, a confidant of Mr. Shamir, explained to an audience of visiting U.S. college students that while peace was desirable, security was even better.
"I must say, very frankly, we have many suspicions," Mr. Milo said of the chance that negotiations would be fruitful. "Our experience with the Syrians is a very negative one."
Israelis were no less skeptical in the weeks before the first talks between the leaders of Israel and Egypt in 1977. Until the actual moment a plane carrying then-Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat landed in Tel Aviv, Israel's army chief of staff was warning that the trip was intended to camouflage a sneak attack.
"What's missing this time is one ingredient -- drama," said David Clayman, head of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Congress. "You can't expect people, after all these wars, to get excited when all they're getting is a lot of niggling talks. They're skeptical, cynical and non-believers."
But there is at least one man in Tel Aviv who is convinced that meaningful talks will take place, Chaim Leeman.
For more than 40 years, the Leeman family in Tel Aviv has manufactured Israeli flags, U.S. flags and any other insignia for which politics creates a market. In a burst of optimism about the Middle East, the family is adding to its line the flag of Syria.
"You can have a click, and it will happen," said Mr. Leeman, sitting in a cramped office decorated with a Syrian flag on a flagpole and miniature Saudi and Israeli flags on his desk. "I would rather think positively."
The best possible news would be a visit by Syrian President Hafez el
Assad to Israel. A state visit requires flags at the airport, flags along highways, flags at the president's hotel.
"If Assad says, 'OK, I'm coming,' it's only an hour flight, and a lot of work for us," said Mr. Leeman. But Israel has not extended an invitation, and Mr. Assad has shown no interest in making the trip.