WASHINGTON -- A surge of optimism surrounding Syrian-Israeli peace talks dissipated swiftly yesterday in a rupture over the central question of trading land for peace.
Saying Israel had refused to discuss land, Syria declared the negotiations at an impasse and demanded American intervention.
But Israelis, together with the United States, downplayed the significance of yesterday's failure, which contrasted sharply with upbeat accounts of progress the day before from both Israel and Syria.
Syria's outburst marked an effort both to pressure Israel for concessions and to shore up Arab unity, threatened by lack of progress in parallel talks between Israel and Palestinians.
Also, the Syrians want to exploit President Bush's desire to see some sort of a deal before the U.S. elections, but they don't want to seem too eager themselves.
Israel and Syria have been negotiating a joint statement of principles intended to guide further talks leading to a peace agreement.
Yesterday's session had been expected to be tough, since it dealt with language at the heart of the Israeli-Syrian conflict: Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967 and Syria's state of war with Israel since 1948.
Syria demands an Israeli commitment to total withdrawal before a peace agreement can be reached. Israel has demanded assurances of a full-fledged peace, with open borders and diplomatic relations, before making territorial concessions.
Chief Syrian negotiator Muwafak Allaf said his Israeli counterpart "informed us this morning that his instructions from his prime minister is not to discuss with us anything about territory except after we discuss what peace, what normalization, what relations" would ensue.
"The peace process is in danger," he said. "I think now they [the Americans] have to intervene in order to save the peace process. Now, what we do or not do after that intervention is subject to the developments."
Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, dismissed the dispute as "an attempt to stage a mini-crisis," and "a down moment."
"We don't precisely understand where it comes from or what the motivation may be," he said. Israelis would be willing to work hard over the weekend to get the talks back on track but not submit to pressure, he said in a reference to American intervention.
Without addressing Mr. Allaf's complaint directly, he said, "the issue of withdrawal or the territorial aspect of the settlement, together with the issue of peace and together with the issue of security are an inseparable package, and all three components should be dealt with together, and everything that happens in the discussion of one of them is going to affect all the others."
The problem is partly caused by inter-Arab politics. Progress between Israel and Syria has left the Palestinians behind, with no progress seen in their separate talks with Israel.
Even a joint Syrian-Israeli statement of principles would undercut the Palestinian position by weakening Arab solidarity.
Clearly aware of this, Mr. Allaf echoed Palestinian complaints that Israel is trying to divide the Arab camp. He rejected the notions of a separate peace and an interim settlement, stressing that any final agreement would have to be "comprehensive," involving Israel and all Arab negotiating parties.
As have the Palestinians, he also said that the positive tone emanating from Israel since the election of its Labor government has not been matched by actions.
The talks resume Monday.