JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Syria unexpectedly announced today the resumption of peace talks after an eight-year break, saying they have been speaking indirectly through Turkish mediators “in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace.”
The longtime adversaries each have something to gain from the dialogue. Israel wants to reduce Syrian support for anti-Israel militants in Gaza and Lebanon, while Syria is eager to improve ties with the U.S. and end its international isolation.
But many obstacles, including a skeptical Israeli public opposed to ceding the strategic Golan Heights to Syria, a scandal-plagued Israeli prime minister and Syria’s providing a home base for radical militant groups, will make it difficult to reach a deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad both recently confirmed their countries had exchanged messages. But today’s announcement, in identical statements issued minutes apart by Israel, Syria and Turkey, was the first official confirmation peace talks were under way.
“Syria and Israel have started indirect peace talks under the auspices of Turkey,” the statement said. It said the two enemies “have declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind,” with a goal of reaching a comprehensive peace.
Noticeably absent from the announcement was the U.S., the traditional power broker in the region. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested the United States was informed in advance but was not participating.
“We were not surprised by it and we do not object to it,” she said. “We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria, Syria’s support of terrorism, repression of its own people.”
President Bush has included Syria in his “axis of evil,” criticizing Damascus for its backing of Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian militants.
In an address today, Olmert said the contacts with Syria had been under way for over a year and noted that previous Israeli leaders were prepared to make “painful concessions” for peace with Syria. Those efforts, by then-prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, failed.
“It is always better to talk than to shoot,” Olmert said, “and I’m happy the two sides have decided to talk,” though he predicted difficult negotiations.
An Israeli government official said Olmert’s chief of staff and diplomatic adviser have been in Turkey since Monday. Israel’s Channel 10 TV showed them returning home today.
“Their Syrian counterparts are in Turkey as well,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contacts. He declined to discuss the substance of the talks.
Turkey’s NTV television said the Israeli and Syrian delegations were in Istanbul but were not meeting directly.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, speaking to reporters during a visit to Bulgaria, said the start of indirect contacts was “an important development” and urged journalists not to be “impatient” concerning details of the meetings.
“These talks will continue indirectly in the period ahead,” the Turkish state-run Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying, refusing to say where the talks are taking place.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have failed in the past, most recently in 2000. The nations have fought three wars, their forces have clashed in Lebanon, and more recently, Syria has given support to Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip.
The sides’ demands in any peace deal are well-known. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed. The last round of peace talks collapsed over disagreements over the last fraction of an Israeli withdrawal.
Israel wants Syria to end its support for anti-Israel militants and curb its ties with Iran, while demanding full peace relations.
While neither appears ready to meet those conditions right now, renewed dialogue could quickly deliver other benefits.
Israel has been battling Hamas militants in Gaza since the Islamic group seized control of the area last June. Israeli talks with Syria could ultimately weaken Hamas, whose leaders are based in Damascus.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said relations with Syria were “very strong” and he didn’t expect any changes.
Israel also wants to reduce the influence of Hezbollah, which battled Israel to a stalemate during a 34-day war in 2006. Israel believes Hezbollah has replenished its arsenal with Syrian help.
Syria’s Assad has expressed interest in restarting peace talks for years. His deep international isolation may have pushed him to take the plunge.
Syria’s relations with moderate Arab powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at their lowest in years, and last September, Israeli warplanes destroyed a suspected nuclear installation in Syria.
By going into talks with Israel, Syria can show the West that it is moderating its policies and perhaps reap political benefits with the next U.S. administration.
Syria “is not as interested in making peace with Israel as it is in making peace with Washington,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as an Israeli negotiator in the last round of talks with Syria,
Olmert has repeatedly signaled his willingness to pull out of the Golan, but actually doing so would not be easy. The Israeli leader, already unpopular since the Lebanon war, has seen his image further tarnished by a police investigation into his financial dealings.
Today the Golan Heights are home to 18,000 Israelis, who run thriving wine and tourism industries. Last month, Olmert spent his Passover vacation at an inn on the Golan. The area has been calm since the 1973 Mideast war, and many Israelis consider it a valuable buffer against attack.
“The people of Israel will not support such a deluded and irresponsible move, which would hand over such a vital Israeli strategic asset to the Arab axis of evil,” said the Golan Residents Council, a group representing Israeli settlers there.
About 17,000 Arabs, most members of the Druse sect, an offshoot of Islam, live in the territory. A few have taken Israeli citizenship, and the rest remain loyal to Syria.
A poll last month by the Dahaf Institute, an Israeli research firm, showed 51 percent of Israelis opposed to giving up the Golan, while 32 percent said they were in favor. Roughly three-quarters of respondents said they thought Assad was not serious about peace. The poll questioned 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Associated Press Writer Sam F. Ghattas contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon.
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