OPTIMISM is a stranger to the Middle East peace process, but the indication of renewed talks between Israel and Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians, allows a glimmer of that emotion.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's shuttling has laid the groundwork for resumed negotiation on the future of the Golan Heights, the Syrian plateau seized by Israel in 1967. Direct contacts between Syria and Israel lapsed in December.
Future negotiations, if they take hold, should focus on ways to finesse both sides' needs, probably through the delineation of demilitarized zones and the stationing of international monitors. Potential gains from such an arrangement ought to be great enough to encourage progress.
Regarding peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, the announcement of July 1 as a target date for an agreement on elections and expanded self-rule for the Palestinians should inject some energy. Also hopeful was Israel's decision to reopen its borders to thousands of Palestinians who depend on jobs with Israeli employers. Nonworking Palestinians mean sparse tax support for the Palestinian Authority charged with building a viable government in Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho.
The head of that authority, Yasser Arafat, last week renewed his promise to strengthen efforts to control radical elements bent on launching attacks against Israel. That is a difficult commitment for Mr. Arafat, since suicide bombers and other militants have a following among Palestinians who have seen few tangible benefits from the ''peace'' sealed by a handshake in Washington in 1993.
Full financial support from all the guarantors of that agreement -- Western and Gulf Arab -- is needed to give the Palestinian Authority the chance, at least, of undertaking significant development projects, as well as funding daily operations. Even more needed, perhaps, is some sign from Israel's government that it will tackle such key issues as restricting, or even rolling back, settlements in the territories. Without that, how can there be serious discussion of an expansion of Palestinian sovereignty?
Both the Syrian and Palestinian peace processes face a rising hurdle: 1996 elections in both Israel and the United States. Things look bleak for Israel's leader, Yitzhak Rabin, and his much fissured Labor Party. Mr. Rabin will need an unaccustomed willingness to risk his political future by pushing the peace negotiations forward. We hope he has it.
It may be the only chance to stave off another Likud government in Israel, which would likely proceed in the opposite direction.