Israel, Syria Disclose Indirect Peace Talks

By Samuel Sockol and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008

JERUSALEM, May 21 -- Israel and Syria disclosed Wednesday that they have been holding indirect talks through Turkish mediators since February 2007 and pledged in a joint statement to pursue negotiations "with good faith and an open mind."

The announcement marked another setback for the Bush administration's campaign to isolate Syria, Iran and their allies in the Middle East, coming the same day as a Lebanon peace agreement that acknowledged the political rise of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia supported by Syria and Iran.

Many in Israel and Syria greeted the first formal announcement of peace talks with skepticism, given the lack of strong support from the United States and the political difficulties facing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at home. Olmert is being questioned by police on bribery allegations while his administration pursues long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Wednesday's announcement came as Olmert's chief of staff and a senior political adviser were in Istanbul for the latest round of negotiations.

Israel and Syria "decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way," the two governments said in their statement.

The talks center on Syria's demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces have occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the two countries opened contacts in February 2007 after Olmert visited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During a 2 1/2 -hour, closed-door meeting, Olmert and Erdogan agreed to have top Turkish officials serve as go-betweens, the official said.

Olmert disclosed in a newspaper interview last month that the two countries had exchanged messages through Turkish officials about peace talks.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad then confirmed this in a separate interview but said he believed direct talks were possible only under U.S. sponsorship and only after President Bush had left office.

The U.S. response to Wednesday's announcement was polite. "I think Turkey played a good and useful role in this regard," said Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch. "Israel and Turkey have apprised us in the past of these discussions."

Israel seized the Golan, a militarily strategic heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee, in the 1967 Middle East war and effectively annexed the area 14 years later by extending Israeli civil law to its residents, most of whom are Arab Druze.

About 20,000 Israeli settlers now live in the Golan, a rugged terrain of Israeli military bases, vineyards and cattle ranches that many senior Israeli army officers say still holds strategic value for the nation's defense.

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