Mid-East talks resume amid high hopes

THE first day of the Middle East peace talks were characterised yesterday by unprecedented optimism from Arab delegations, after Israel offered new terms to Syria for a deal on the Golan Heights.

After three hours of meetings, the Syrian spokeswoman, Bushra Kanafani, praised Israel for 'a different approach and style' and described the atmosphere as 'reasonable and constructive' - the most glowing terms ever used by Syrian officials about the Israeli enemy, according to several veteran Middle East watchers.

Reversing the hardline policies of the previous Likud government, Israel signalled to Syria that it was ready to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights - or at least a proportion of it - in return for a full and binding peace treaty and security guarantees. Israel gave strong indications that it was prepared to discuss the Golan Heights in the context of UN Resolution 242, which calls for the return of land in exchange for peace. Furthermore, Israel told Syria it wanted a 'comprehensive' peace - implying it is seeking peace with all parties at once, a commitment it has avoided in past negotiations.

The previous Likud government refused to concede that the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, fell under the terms of Resolution 242, which has been the basis for all Arab-Israeli peace efforts since the 1967 war, when Israel also seized the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem. Now Israel has placed 'territory' on the table, it will be waiting for Syria to answer that it is prepared to talk about a peace treaty.

The Israeli move was being interpreted in Arab delegations yesterday as the most serious sign yet that the new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is committed to achieving progress. Peace with Syria, Israel's most hated enemy, has always loomed as a stumbling block in the talks. Without the Syrians on board, the entire peace process hangs in the balance, and the chances of achieving Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is the immediate aim of the current negotiations, is placed in jeopardy.

First talks with the Palestinians on self-rule in the occupied territories will be held today.

On arrival in the US the Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said she expected a 'very important and decisive' session of talks. She welcomed the Israeli decision to relase 800 Palestinian prisoners and to lift explusion orders against 11 Palestinians as a 'positive signal'.

However, Dr Ashrawi introduced a note of caution about today's Israeli-Palestinian meetings. She warned Israel against 'symbolic' gestures, saying all 13,000 political prisoners should be released. She said Israel's determination to continue with the building of 11,000 homes in Jewish settlements was a 'very serious and negative development', describing them as '11,000 obstacles to peace'. And, demonstrating unease about the new US support for Israel in the talks, Dr Ashrawi called for 'impartial and objective' involvement from the US co-sponsors.

The Israeli spokesman Yosi Gal said there was 'plenty of beef' on Israel's proposals on Palestinian autonomy, telling the Palestinian delegation that they had 'everything to gain and nothing to lose'.