Rabin promotes peace with Syria to top of agenda: Israel appears to be putting Palestinian autonomy on hold. Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem

WHATEVER new hopes and fears the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, left behind yesterday as he departed from Jerusalem, one recurrent line of speculation about the future of the Middle East peace process is hardening in Israel: that in coming months Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, will push for a deal with Syria first.

Diplomatic sources say Mr Rabin himself promoted the idea during his talks with Mr Christopher in the past two days. During the Christopher visit the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, was buzzing with stories of the likely political blood-letting if Israel starts to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Suggestions that Mr Rabin might make a peace deal with Syria his priority, leaving Palestinian autonomy to set a slower pace, first surfaced soon after the election last year, when Israel sensed a willingness in Damascus to talk of a peace treaty. At that time, however, there were strong reasons for scepticism. Mr Rabin was committed by his election pledge to achieve Palestinian autonomy within 6-9 months, and at the time still believed this was possible. Playing up the chance of a Syrian deal was a convenient way to put pressure on the Palestinians to remain in the peace talks.

Also, whatever friendly noises were heard there was no real sign that Israel would even consider the terms set by Syria in return for a full peace treaty: total withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Today there is still cause for such scepticism. But other factors have come into play to change the balance of probabilities. The first is the damage done by the deportee affair to the chances of achieving early progress on Palestinian autonomy. However irreconcilable the differences with Damascus, Mr Rabin appears to believe that a deal with Syria may now be more achievable than one with the Palestinians.

In addition, Mr Rabin has always been unhappy with the idea of pushing through a deal on more than one front at a time, with a highly volatile public to consider.

Above all, however, those who believe the Syria-first theory say Mr Rabin needs progress for domestic political reasons. The disappointment on the left of the Labour Party with Mr Rabin's first nine months in office is intense. He is accused of running the country like a general, listening to nobody and eschewing political compromise.

Mr Rabin was chosen to lead the party - rather than his more dovish rival, Shimon Peres - because he was tough enough to make peace. But so far he has achieved nothing. 'The disillusion is very deep,' said one influential figure on the left of the Labour Party. 'People are asking, 'Why is it not working?' People are asking, 'What happened to the promise to have autonomy in nine months' time?' '

As Mr Rabin knows, for now the party has no choice but to give him more time. But if there is no progress in a year, when the next election will be looming, divisions could open up. 'Shimon Peres is waiting. He is always there,' said a supporter. If Mr Rabin believes a deal with Syria would preserve his position, he may be prepared to make the compromises.

As the debate has intensified, senior Labour Party figures are cautioning against the Syria-first theory. They say that if Syria agreed to an interim arrangement such a deal would be possible. But as long as Damascus insists on total Israeli withdrawal, Israel cannot accept.

'Israel cannot withdraw from the Golan Heights without a dramatic change in the strategic balance of the Middle East, which I see no sign of,' said Ephraim Sne, a former general and Labour member of parliament.

The critics also argue that Israel's priority should continue to be a solution to the Palestinian question. 'The Syrian question is just a territorial dispute. There is no urgency to solve it. The Palestinian quesiton is a national conflict,' said Mr Sne. The US administration is also understood to favour small progress on all fronts, rather than a separate Syrian deal.