WASHINGTON -- Israel and Syria, implacable foes for four decades, progressed yesterday toward a major peace breakthrough.
For the first time, the two nations reported agreement on some issues of substance as they moved toward the short-term goal of a joint statement of principles that will guide future talks.
The hardest part begins today, when they start to talk seriously about territory and the kind of peace Syria envisions.
In exchange for ending its state of war with the Jewish state, Syria wants Israel to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, which fell to Israel in 1967.
In exchange for territorial concessions, Israel is intent on securing the broadest possible peace treaty, such as the one it concluded with Egypt, including open borders and full diplomatic relations.
Negotiators said today's session may determine whether their joint statement will be completed during the current round of talks, which end next week.
The approaching U.S. elections are raising the pressure to register progress on all sides, but particularly on the Arabs because of Democratic challenger Bill Clinton's more pro-Israel stance. But for both sides, a change in administrations would mean a change in personnel at the top and thus a period of flux on the part of the talks' main sponsor.
At the end of talks yesterday, both sides gave their most positive assessments to date.
Mowaffak Allaf, the head of the Syrian delegation, said: "We have discussed some of the important elements in the document, and we were able to agree, at least in a general way, on some of these elements."
"But I cannot answer you about the whole document because there are also very important elements which would be discussed maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. And then, at the end of that exercise, maybe we shall be able to say whether there is room for commonality of views or not."
He cautioned that "everything depends on the document in its entirety."
Itamar Rabinovitch, his Israeli counterpart, told reporters: "We discussed texts; we compared texts. We agreed on some formulations. We continued to disagree on some, but to disagree in a positive spirit."
Negotiators are going through two texts -- a Syrian proposal and an Israeli response -- paragraph by paragraph to bridge their differences. In contrast to downbeat accounts of previous sessions, both sides indicated that even the airing of disagreements was useful.
The sudden turn in Israeli-Syrian relations follows the election of Israel's Labor-led government and an expressed willingness by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to discuss a territorial compromise. Syrian President Hafez el-Assad has responded in kind with talk of a "peace of the brave" that has invited parallels to the Crusader era.
Before yesterday's talks started, both sides reported progress on security arrangements.
But the key exchange of territory for peace has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. Israel refuses to accept "land for peace" as a basis for the talks, referring instead euphemistically to the "territorial dimension" or "territorial aspect."
On peace, Bushra Kanafani, the Syrian spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview that "Syria is ready to implement all the requirements of [UN Resolutions] 242 and 338 concerning peace."
Syria began to elaborate on that in the talks yesterday, according to Mr. Rabinovitch.