WASHINGTON -- Prospects for a broader peace in the Middle East advanced yesterday with clear gains in negotiations between the bitterest enemies: Israel and Syria.
The progress gave a signal that Syrian President Hafez el Assad won't try to undercut an Israeli-Palestinian accord reached in secret and may be using the new momentum toward Mideast peace to extract the most concessions he can get from Israel.
But Israelis cautioned that yesterday's advance dealt more with language than substance and that the tough land-for-peace issues had not yet been seriously addressed. And a senior U.S. official expressed doubt that serious progress could be made at anything like the pace of the Israeli-Palestinian deal.
The signs of progress between the Syrians and the Israelis came as the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization continued to work on the details of their own arrangement that would lead to mutual recognition and Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
Progress between Israel and Syria could pave the way for progress in Israel's talks with Lebanon, which is heavily influenced by Syria. A separate Israeli-Jordanian accord on an agenda for future talks is virtually complete and awaits only the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian declaration before being announced.
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that another trip to Syria by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher might be necessary to break the logjam over the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the type of peace envisaged by Syria.
In past rounds, Israel was unable to get a Syrian pledge to negotiate a peace treaty and work toward open borders and full diplomatic relations between the two bitter enemies.
All Syria could get from Israel was a pledge to withdraw "on" rather than "from" the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Mr. Christopher concentrated heavily on the Israeli-Syrian front in his most recent trip in early August, getting the talks back on track after a flare-up of violence along the Lebanon border between Israeli forces and pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrillas.
Key U.S. officials believed the Israeli-PLO accord could set back the Syrian talks, simply because Mr. Assad wouldn't want to appear to be following in PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's footsteps.
But Syrian negotiator Mowafak Allaf expressed hope yesterday that a joint declaration of principles with Israel would be finished by the end of next week, when the current round of Mideast peace talks ends in Washington.
Such a declaration would set the broad framework of a peace to be worked out in future negotiations, although it would fall far short of an actual peace treaty.
Saying that previous rounds had been stalled because Israel "was not very positive," he added: "We hope to see some more positiveness during this round in order to be able to end, hopefully, the discussion of the draft declaration during this round."
U.S. officials who have been following the talks closely, while cautious about the chances for a joint declaration in this round, said months of negotiations between Israel and Syria were beginning to bear fruit.
In working through proposed language of a joint declaration, Israelis and Syrians agreed yesterday on the text of a statement on security guarantees for disengagement on the Golan Heights and moved on to the crucial next paragraph dealing with an exchange of land for peace.
"We have nearly agreed on the introduction of this paragraph," Mr. Allaf said.
Israeli negotiator Itamar Rabinovitch, who is also ambassador to Washington, said after yesterday's session that they had not yet addressed "the problematic parts" of the paragraph.
But he said the introduction "is important in itself because it reflects the outlooks of the two parties on the very nature of these negotiations."
"And we made progress and we reached agreements on points that in earlier rounds seemed to be unbridgeable, and suddenly this week they became bridgeable. I hope that this is an indication of things to come -- hope, but not certain," Mr. Rabinovitch said.
But an Israeli diplomat said later that the progress was mostly in wording that does not deal with the "core issues," and added: "My advice is not to make too much out of it."
"Jumping on the peace train full speed ahead is not Assad's style," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. "It's far more likely that he will wait and see if Palestinians accept it and Israelis accept it. We're not going to see the same lightning deal."
From the Israeli standpoint, an agreement with Syria is more difficult, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may feel he is now better positioned to drive a harder bargain, Mr. Satloff added.
Although an Israeli-Syrian deal would be far less complex than the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it is more important strategically for Israel, since Syria is the most militarily powerful of its immediate neighbors.
The Golan Heights, while lacking religious significance to Israel, is home to vocal settlers and is much harder politically to yield than the Gaza Strip, which most Israelis see as a headache.
Unlike the Israeli-PLO deal, which totally bypassed the formal Washington peace talks, there is no evidence yet of a separate, secret set of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
The only apparent "channel," although a crucial one, is high-level contact involving Washington, other Arab capitals and Damascus.
Yesterday's signs of progress followed mediation efforts by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who called Mr. Assad on Tuesday, and a weekend telephone call to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa from Mr. Christopher.
Egypt, until now the only Arab state to make peace with Israel, has been urgently trying to turn the new peace-process momentum into actual deals.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa has mediated between Israel and the Palestinians on language of mutual recognition statements.
It is also preparing to host a summit for Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat after the signing of a joint declaration.
In Jerusalem and at PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, officials were searching for just the right words to clear the way for mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO.
Recognition by PLO
Israeli officials insisted that the PLO eliminate from its charter the repeated references to the destruction of Israel.
The PLO seems ready to comply, but officials say it may take some time.
According to Palestinian and Israeli sources, Israel wants a firm, decisive statement from the PLO acknowledging Israel's legitimacy and renouncing the organization's goal of destruction of the Jewish state, the Los Angeles Times reported.
To speed up the process, Israel has agreed to move ahead with the self-rule plan as soon as the PLO executive committee approves an acceptable statement, postponing the final step -- amendment of the charter by the Palestine National Council -- until the next council meeting, which could be months away.
"They are not far apart, but close is not enough," Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian physician from Jerusalem with close ties to Mr. Arafat, said. "They still have some formulations to settle and agree on. The last few words may be found quite quickly, but they will probably require a few more days."