JERUSALEM -- The atmosphere for peace talks between Israel and Syria has never been more favorable than it is now as a result of recent attempts by Damascus to appeal to Israeli public opinion, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said yesterday.
Starting a weeklong mediation mission that will take him twice each to Jerusalem and Damascus, Mr. Christopher cited a long and often-contentious interview that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh gave to Israel's state-owned television as a demonstration of Syria's new attitude.
Mr. Christopher said that Mr. Shareh's "willingness to have an interview with an Israeli journalist is an important step toward reconciliation" -- even though the Syrian foreign minister's words echoed Damascus' traditional hard-line position.
"The interview was very significant in symbolic terms," Mr. Christopher said. "I would urge that attention be paid to that rather than just to the substance of it."
Mr. Christopher noted that during the conference in Madrid, Spain, that launched the present round of Middle East peace negotiations in 1991, Mr. Shareh refused to permit Israeli reporters to attend what had been billed as an open news conference, speaking only after all Israelis had been escorted from the room.
The Israeli Cabinet discussed the Shareh interview in generally favorable terms during its weekly meeting yesterday.
Israeli Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni, long a leader of the Israeli "peace camp," hailed the interview as "the breakthrough we've been talking about."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said it was a "positive step" for Mr. Shareh to talk directly to the Israeli public, but he denounced Mr. Shareh's claim that Syrian troops had never shelled Israeli civilian targets during the wars between the two nations. Mr. Rabin, Israel's army chief of staff during the 1967 Six Day War, said that the Syrians repeatedly shelled Israeli communities from positions on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured during that conflict.
The Golan is the central issue in the Israel-Syria negotiations. Syria demands the return of all of the captured territory as a condition for peace.
Israel has said it would consider a partial withdrawal but insists that Syria must first indicate if it is ready to exchange ambassadors, open the border and take other steps in exchange.
Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said the interview was an important gesture but added, "I don't think the government is about to offer a deal of the Golan Heights in exchange" for a television program.
Mr. Christopher urged the Israelis to view the Syrian gesture in the context of other recent signs of an Arab-Israeli warming.
Israel has reached preliminary peace agreements with the Palestinians and Jordan in a little over a year and has opened diplomatic contacts with Morocco and Tunisia. In addition, the oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have agreed to stop enforcing the long-standing Arab boycott of companies that do business with Israel.