WASHINGTON -- Despite public optimism in the recent Israeli-Syrian peace talks on the Eastern Shore, U.S. and Israeli officials privately are voicing disappointment over the lack of progress and fears that an accord again may elude them.
If the pace is not quickened, a deal may be impossible before this year's elections in Israel, officials and experts warn. And the Clinton administration might not achieve its own election-year goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace, a glittering capstone to Secretary of State Warren Christopher's diplomatic career.
The more gloomy outlook has emerged in the aftermath of Mr. Christopher's visit last week to Jerusalem and Damascus, Syria.
Some officials concede that while the first two rounds of talks -- held in late December and early January at the Wye River Conference Centers on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- improved the working atmosphere between the two bitter foes, they achieved little of substance.
Officials had hoped that the talks and Mr. Christopher's personal diplomacy could have produced by now at least a framework and timetable for the remaining negotiations, boosting confidence that an Israeli-Syrian agreement could be achieved this year.
New Wye talks ahead
Instead, diplomatic efforts have merely paved the way for a new round of Wye talks that will begin Wednesday, followed by another Middle East trip by Mr. Christopher in February.
"Wye One was positive in terms of atmosphere, informality and a discussion of a range of key issues, but Wye One was not yet a negotiation in the strict sense of the term," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is correct, Mr. Christopher, too, is dissatisfied by the slow pace of progress. During a lunch meeting last week with Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, Mr. Christopher reportedly said of the previous week's negotiations at Wye: "I was basically disappointed by the talks."
His spokesman, Nicholas Burns, denounced the "leak" from the private lunch yesterday but did not deny that Mr. Christopher was quoted accurately.
"It was abundantly clear to me that he believes that the Wye talks were productive, that they were constructive and that they were useful," Mr. Burns said.
Publicly, the Clinton administration continues to express cautious optimism.
U.S. mediator optimistic
The U.S. mediator to the talks, Dennis Ross, speaking last night to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, called the Wye talks "very successful" so far.
"We began to see a willingness to approach differences in a very pragmatic sense," he said, adding that there is "reason to be hopeful that we will continue to make progress."
Earlier, he sounded a similar tone to leaders of Baltimore's Jewish community.
"We didn't have a meaningful dialogue [before]," he said. "We have that now. A meaningful dialogue in and of itself is not going to guarantee an agreement. But if you can't produce a meaningful dialogue, you most certainly have no chance of getting an agreement.
"We're in a new phase, and that phase is much more meaningful," he said.
The basic outlines of an Israeli-Syrian agreement are well known: exchange of the strategic Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, for a full peace. However, getting to that point has bedeviled Israel, Syria and U.S. mediators for the past four years.
Before it begins a withdrawal from the heights, Israel insists on gaining a Syrian commitment to a "warm peace," including open borders and economic cooperation between the two countries, not just diplomatic relations.
And though Israel has signaled its willingness to withdraw fully if its terms are met, a dispute remains over where the border should be.
The talks also have been complicated by the issue of water, always a big consideration in the arid region. The source of one-third of Israel's water supply is in the Golan Heights.
U.S. officials have raised the possibility that Israel could retain rights to Golan Heights water and that neighboring Turkey could be persuaded to provide more water to Syria. In exchange, Syria would be asked to restrain Kurdish separatists who have been fighting a guerrilla war against Turkey.
Beyond such narrow issues, Israeli officials have expressed disappointment that Syria is unwilling to assign higher-level negotiators to the talks. The next round will be headed, as before, by Syria's ambassador, Walid Al Moualem, although the talks will be joined by a Syrian military intelligence official.
But Israel has reasons of its own for slowing the peace process. To make up for the loss of the strategic Golan Heights, Israeli officials plan to seek billions of dollars in new aid at a time when Congress is wrestling with trying to achieve a balanced budget.
The Israeli press has reported that part of the money would go toward strengthening the military and part to relocating Israeli settlers living on the Golan Heights.
After talks between Israeli and Syrian military leaders collapsed last year, the peace process was frozen for six months. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres revived it after the assassination of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin.
With only a slender parliamentary majority, Mr. Peres is under strong pressure from members of his Labor Party to call early elections to cement the popularity the party inherited from Mr. ZTC Rabin. In any event, elections must be held by the end of October.
But calling early elections effectively would freeze Israeli-Syrian negotiations for at least three months, officials say. Mr. Peres will have to make a decision by next month, increasing pressure on negotiators to achieve progress during the next round of Wye talks.