THE Israeli government is preparing a skeptical Israeli public for returning one of its most prized possessions -- the scenic and strategic northeastern mountain plateau known as the Golan Heights -- to Syria.
This campaign comes after last week's United States-brokered agreement between Israel and Syria on a set of principles that will guide negotiations between military experts from the two countries to begin in Washington this month.
The movement on the stalled Israel-Syria peace talks appears to be part of a broader thrust by Israel for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal ahead of 1996 Israeli elections.
The moves on the Golan coincide with renewed Israeli commitment to meet the July 1 deadline in the negotiations with Palestinian leaders for a partial withdrawal of troops on the West Bank and the setting of the date for Palestinian elections.
And it follows a week after a surprise decision to suspend the plan for the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
Yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that Israel is proposing withdrawing its troops from the Golan over four years as part of the peace treaty with Syria. While such a move has been long discussed, this is the first time a timetable has been set. The land was captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
''We are determined to win peace even if we shall endanger winning elections,'' Mr. Peres told about 100 diplomats at a United Nations briefing in New York on Tuesday.
''Because of the peace process, we are gaining historically but losing politically,'' Peres told the diplomats.
Earlier, Peres told Labor Party officials that giving up the Golan Heights was the price for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
''We have to tell the truth ... staying on the Golan Heights means giving up peace,'' he said, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sat at his side.
Mr. Rabin has been more cautious in his statements, but has also begun preparing to reverse his solemn vow to some 13,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan made during the 1992 election campaign: ''Withdrawal from the Golan is unthinkable -- even in times of peace. Anyone considering withdrawal ... would be abandoning Israel's security,'' Rabin said in 1992.
Israel's Justice Department began preparations for holding a referendum on giving back the Golan following Rabin's pledge on Monday that he would hold a vote before giving back ''even one centimeter'' of the Golan.
Syrian officials denounced Rabin's referendum pledge as ''procrastination,'' which threatened to slow down the peace process. But Israeli analysts said that Rabin could still finesse his election pledge by combining a test of opinion on the Golan with November 1996 elections.
''What is more worrying is that major problems lie ahead in the negotiations, and the US is not doing enough to push the parties forward,'' says Moshe Maoz of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
''Last week's US-brokered agreement on security principles was helpful, but much more needs to be done if the parties are to make the timetable set by the Israeli elections,'' Professor Maoz says. Because of the complexity of the negotiations and firmly held positions on both sides, they're unlikely to get there unless pushed, he says.
''If agreement is not reached by the end of this year, it could be too late ... it will be too tough to do it during an Israeli election campaign,'' he adds.
Both Rabin and Peres have stressed that any interim deal with Syria should be part of a final settlement, and Peres has warned that a deal with Syria will be different from other Middle East peace accords, such as those with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
The leaders insistthere are four essential conditions for a deal with Syria: agreement on a peace border between the two countries, a clear timetable for withdrawal, some normalization of relations between the two countries before implementation, and mutually agreed security arrangements to guarantee the peace.
A poll published Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv indicated that 56 percent of Israelis would vote against any peace deal with Syria that involves uprooting Jewish settlers in the Golan.
But the survey -- conducted among a sample of 517 Jewish adults -- did not include Israeli Arabs who make up 17 percent of the population.
Rabin is facing a rebellion in Labor Party ranks by the rebel Third Way group, which is supporting a Likud bill that would require a special majority of 70 out of the 120 Knesset members and a 50 percent majority at a referendum before the Golan could be returned to Syria.
''On the one hand, it is clear that no peace agreement with Assad is conceivable without Israel giving him all of the Golan...,'' said Yehuda Harel, chairman of Third Way. ''At the same time, giving up the Golan, greatly increases the danger of war ... and reduces Israel's ability to prevail in such a war.''