WASHINGTON -- In a modest step toward peace, Israel and Syria agreed in principle yesterday on the need for demilitarized zones and early-warning systems once Israel pulls back from the Golan Heights.
The understanding was disclosed after two days of talks here between the Israeli and Syrian military chiefs on the security arrangements that would accompany any eventual full-fledged peace.
A peace agreement with Syria would likely be followed quickly by an accord between Israel and Lebanon, finally ending more than four decades of war between Israel and all of its immediate Arab neighbors.
President Clinton, who met with the two generals yesterday, was "impressed by what had been accomplished," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said. Secretary of State Warren Christopher added that the negotiations were "a very important step in the right direction."
The talks, held at Fort McNair here, occurred against a backdrop of mounting political pressure in Israel and fears by the ruling Labor Party that a failure to achieve a breakthrough with Syria by early next year could doom the peace process.
Security arrangements are crucial to making both sides confident that any peace would last. They are particularly important for Israel, since in giving up the Golan Heights it would be yielding strategic high ground.
Reclaiming the Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the June 1967 war, has long been Syria's paramount demand in the peace negotiations.
Israeli and U.S. officials said that this week's talks fulfilled their hopes of starting a serious, high-level dialogue between the military establishments of both countries.
After a trip to the Middle East next week by Dennis Ross, the chief U.S. envoy in the peace process, Israel and Syria are expected to send lower-level military officials and diplomats back to Washington for more talks in July.
The two sides agreed that when Israel pulls back from the Golan, each side would need an early-warning system to prevent a surprise military attack by the other.
They also agreed on the need for demilitarized buffer zones. Beyond those zones would be additional spaces with only limited numbers of forces, the two sides agreed.
But beyond these general principles, the talks revealed major areas of disagreement and at least one potential deal breaker.
"The gaps are still wide and deep," the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, told reporters here.
The Syrian chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Hikmat Shihabi, stuck to a "very hard" line and showed "very little flexibility," a senior Israeli official said.
Syria balked at an Israeli demand that the early-warning systems include not just aerial reconnaissance but also ground lookout stations.
"We demand ground stations. The Syrians don't like them," said the senior Israeli official. One outside analyst said that this disagreement, if not solved, could doom the talks.
"Line-of-sight monitoring is crucial to the Israelis. It's close to non-negotiable," said Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The two sides also failed to agree on the size of the demilitarized zones, but General Shahak said that he found his Syrian counterpart to be a serious professional and "a person I think we can make a dialogue with."
The businesslike, relaxed atmosphere of the talks was an improvement over a session last December between General Shihabi and General Shahak's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak. The earlier talks amounted to little more than a presentation of each side's positions and were followed a halt of several months in the entire peace process.
Progress on security arrangements would pave the way for agreement on the big questions of withdrawal and how far Syria is willing to go in making peace with Israel. The Israelis want all the trappings of peace, including open borders and full diplomatic relations.
The talks have been clouded by political controversy in both Israel and the United States. The Israeli opposition Likud Party has mounted a strong campaign against giving up the Golan Heights and has made headway as a result of public disillusionment with the results of the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Likud lobbyists have been working to win allies in Washington, particularly among conservative Republicans now in control of Congress, warning that a deal on the Golan Heights could require the use of U.S. troops as peacekeepers.
Israeli officials say they have only until early next year to achieve a major breakthrough with Syria. After that, they predict, election cycles in both Israel and the United States will disrupt the process.