THE just-concluded round of Middle East peace talks helped crack the ice. The parties pushed beyond procedural bickering toward fundamental issues.
The Syrians said they were ready for "total peace" with Israel. The Israelis came face to face with the thorny question of returning the Golan Heights to Syria. The Palestinians have to decide whether to explore autonomy on Israel's limited terms or angle, perhaps fruitlessly, for some assurance of eventual statehood.
None of the parties, however, has indicated how it will respond to these issues. Syria and Israel have given their talks a more cordial tone. But underlying positions are as opposed as ever. The Syrians won't spell out what they mean by "peace" - trade, diplomacy, tourism? Their prerequisite is an Israeli commitment to complete withdrawal from the Golan.
But the prospect of even partial withdrawal brought an outcry from Israeli settler groups. Most Israelis, in fact, firmly believe the heights are critical to their security. That perception will yield only gradually as the potential benefits of peace with Syria become clearer.
A system of demilitarization and close monitoring on the Golan, along with eventual removal of settlements, is possible in theory. The realization of such feats of compromise still lies way down the negotiations path, however.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wants quick movement on all negotiating fronts. His peacemaking efforts have strong public support at present, but he heads a contentious coalition. He needs results.
Mr. Rabin hopes for elections in the West Bank and Gaza by next spring, but his plans must await the resolution of such basic points as what Palestinians will be voting for. Israel wants an administrative council with closely circumscribed powers. The Palestinians want a genuine legislative body that would free them, to a large extent, from Israel's yoke. That's a reasonable desire. But will the Palestinians' factionalized politics allow them to fulfill it gradually, perhaps over a period of years?
Quick results and quarantees of final outcomes aren't likely from these talks, which resume in Washington on Oct. 21. What's critical is a sense of momentum and a commitment from all parties - including the United States - to keep the process going.