It appears that Syria is prepared to make peace, at its own pace, with Israel. If so, Israel would emerge largely at peace with the Arab world for the first time. President Clinton met President Hafez el Assad at Geneva Sunday to obtain a public endorsement of this in principle. It was obtained. His five-hour meeting with the dictator whom the State Department accuses of sponsoring terrorism was the price that Mr. Clinton paid. It was probably arranged when Secretary of State Warren Christopher called on Mr. Assad in December.
What this does is heighten expectations surrounding the resumption of direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations in Washington next Monday. These talks, which began under the rubric of the 1991 Madrid conference, broke down in September. Syria walked out. The unbridgeable gulf was whether Israel or Syria would agree first to concessions.
The resumption of these negotiations puts pressure on PLO leader Yasser Arafat to soften his demands on borders and Jericho, which has obstructed implementation of the PLO-Israel agreement. Mr. Arafat had been comforted by Syria's intransigence and has been holding out for conditions of sovereignty rather than autonomy.
An agreement between Israel and Syria would require demilitarization of Lebanon's border with Israel, an end to raids from there and evacuation of Israeli and Syrian troops. It would require shutting down the Iranian-backed Hezbollah (Party of God), now a formidable force in Lebanon. It would require shutting down such terrorist groups as Abu Nidal and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which retain sanctuary if not freedom of action in Syria.
There is no doubt that Israel would have to proclaim Syrian sovereignty of the Golan Heights rather early, and evacuate it in stages later. Phases, intelligence apparatus and third-party troops are possible devices to help make this work.
Maintaining a Golan presence for security has been a tenet of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor Party. Although settlers showed their anger Monday, they are largely his followers and less hostile than the Likud-leaning settlers of Gaza and the West Bank. Making concessions to the PLO and Syria concurrently is a lot to ask of Israeli voters, and Arab peace overtures need to be convincing for them to approve both. Mr. Rabin has endorsed the principle of a referendum on giving back Golan.
There is, of course, no assurance of success in the Syria-Israel negotiations. Mr. Assad is not a nice man, and gives nothing away for nothing. Having lost Soviet support for obstruction, he is extracting the highest price he can, in world acceptance, for doing what the world wants. Momentum and expectations were achieved at the summit. It will be up to Mr. Assad and Mr. Rabin to fulfill them.