/ 21 May 2008

Israel, Syria pursue peace talks

Israel and Syria said in surprise announcements on Wednesday they were conducting indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation.

Senior officials from both sides were currently in Turkey, an Israeli government official said. He would not confirm there had been direct contacts between the two delegations.

”The two sides have begun indirect talks under Turkish auspices,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said in a statement released two days before he was due to undergo further police questioning over suspected bribe-taking.

”The sides have declared their intention to conduct the talks without prejudice and with openness,” it added. ”They have decided to conduct the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace.”

Syria’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the indirect talks.

”Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in goodwill and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace,” it said in a statement that closely echoed the wording of the Israeli announcement.

Syrian officials said a month ago they were cooperating with Turkey on efforts to relaunch negotiations with Israel after an eight-year hiatus.

The Israeli government official said discussions on reopening dialogue with Turkish mediation had begun last year.

Israel and Syria last held peace talks in the United States in 2000, but they collapsed after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the fate of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

A dispute over control of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which the Golan Heights overlook, was widely seen as the main stumbling block.

Olmert, who also relaunched peace talks with the Palestinians six months ago, has said he is willing to discuss handing back the Golan to Syria in return for Damascus severing ties with Iran and guerrilla movements hostile to Israel, notably the Palestinians of Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Last September, Israeli war planes bombed what United States officials said was a suspected North Korean-built nuclear facility in Syria, an attack that drew no apparent retaliation from Damascus.

US role

Analysts, including former senior Israeli officials, believe there is little prospect of a peace between Israel and Syria without a shift in US policy toward Damascus, possibly once President George Bush steps down in January.

One view is that, aside from territory, Israel has little to offer Syria and that Damascus would move its allegiances away from Tehran only on the prospect of being embraced economically and diplomatically by the US and its allies.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month that Washington would support Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria.

But she repeated US demands that Damascus should change its policies on Lebanon, where Syria’s allies have been at odds with other factions backed by the US.

The Israeli official said: ”The prime minister visited Turkey in February 2007 and in talks with the Turkish prime minister it was agreed that Turkey would start to act in a mediating role.

”The idea was to restart the peace process with Syria.”

Top Olmert aides Yoram Turbovitch and Shalom Turgeman were put in charge of the contacts and travelled several times to Turkey to meet their Turkish counterparts, he added.

”We feel these contacts reached fruition about three weeks ago. It was decided to have a gathering in Ankara. The two officials have been there since Monday, in parallel with Syrian representatives,” the official said, stopping short of confirming any direct talks between the two sides.

”The goal is to try to have renewed peace talks with the Syrians,” the official said, declining to give any details on when or where such negotiations would be held.

He added that the talks would not affect the negotiations with the Palestinians.

”The government remains committed to pursuing both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks,” the official said.

The announcement of Israeli-Syrian talks coincided with a criminal investigation against Olmert, who will be questioned by police for a second time, on Friday, over suspicions he accepted bribes from an American businessman. He denies all wrongdoing. — Reuters