JERUSALEM (JTA) – In a surprise move, the governments of Israel and Syria announced that they are resuming peace talks – prompting a tepid endorsement from the United States.
In statements Wednesday issued simultaneously from Jerusalem and Damascus, the longtime Mideast adversaries announced that representatives of the two governments have been meeting this week in Ankara to discuss restarting peace talks under Turkish auspices.
“The sides have declared their intention to conduct the talks without prejudice and with openness,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said. “They have decided to conduct the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace.”
Olmert’s two top aides have been in Turkey since Monday in parallel with counterparts from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Syria has started indirect peace talks with Israel under Turkish auspices,” a Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said. “Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in good will and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace.”
Israel-Syria talks were last held in 2000 but collapsed over a demand by Damascus for the full return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The countries have been edging closer to peace negotiations for some time, but the U.S. policy of isolating Syria for its alliance with Iran and other extremists in the region had thwarted any attempts at rapprochement between Israel and Syria.
After Wednesday’s announcement, the U.S. State Department offered only a tepid endorsement of the renewed talks.
“We think the expansion of the circle of peace would be a good thing, and of course it would be very, very helpful if that included an agreement with Syria,” David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the Middle East, said in a briefing Wednesday morning.
“That said, President Bush, during his – recently on his trip to the region declared that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians offer special promise, and we’re working to conclude an agreement by the end of the year on this. Those parties are in direct negotiation.”
Israeli officials said Israel and Syria have been holding indirect talks via the Turks since February 2007, when Olmert visited Ankara and agreed to Turkey’s role as mediator.
In the past year or two, both Olmert and Assad have declared their readiness for peace talks several times. In a recent interview with the Qatar-based newspaper al-Watan, Assad said Olmert told him via the Turks that he is ready to return the Golan Heights to Syria. Olmert’s office did not deny the claim.
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with Assad last month in Damascus, Assad said 85 percent of the issues between Syria and Israel already have been resolved.
Assad has said he will settle for no less than a full return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Olmert has preconditioned peace on Syria first disengaging from Iran and ending its support for Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism.
Hezbollah fighters regularly pass through Syria on their way to training in Iran, and Western intelligence sources say Syria enables arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Damascus is also home to Hamas’ terrorist chief, Khaled Meshaal.
In Israel, the disclosure that the government is renewing negotiations with Syria was met by anger from the right wing and skepticism that the talks are motivated by Olmert’s desire to divert public attention from his legal difficulties. The prime minister is under investigation for possible bribery and illegal campaign financing.
“Syria is still the foundation of the axis of evil, and I’m not sure it’s appropriate to transfer Israel’s northern front to the axis of evil,” Shas party leader Eli Yishai said, according to Israeli media.
Labor Party parliamentarian Shelley Yachimovich derided Olmert’s announcement as “meaningless spin.”
“Olmert is cynically trying to fool decent, peace-advocating citizens to deflect attention from the cash envelope,” she said, according to Israeli media.
Experts say the major catalyst prompting peace talks now is the impending change of administration in Washington. Israel and Syria are preparing for a new U.S. president who may be ready to invest in an Israel-Syria peace deal, primarily to detach Syria from an alliance with Iran.
The announcement that the talks will be held under Turkish auspices highlighted the growing role Turkey seeks to play as a mediator in the region. A secular Muslim country that shares a border with Syria and has a close strategic relationship with Israel, Turkey has its own interest in a stable Middle East.
In the space of just a few weeks last fall, Turkey hosted Assad on the first-ever visit to Turkey by a Syrian president as well as the Saudi king. It also had the Palestinian and Israeli presidents address the Turkish Parliament in Ankara.
“Turkey can make a unique contribution as both a global architect and a local actor,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said during his speech. “We may be saying different prayers, but our eyes are turned toward the same sky and toward the same vision for the Middle East.”
In a visit to Damascus last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a detailed meeting with Assad focusing mainly on the question of negotiations with Israel.
Israeli players and analysts agree that Washington holds the key to the success of a peace deal. The only way Syria can be induced to sever its close military, diplomatic and economic ties with Iran and other extremists in the Middle East is if it receives a better offer from the West – an offer, they say, only the United States can make.
“We could reach an Israel-Syria bilateral deal relatively quickly,” Alon Liel, the chairman of the Israel-Syria peace lobby and a retired Israeli diplomat, told JTA recently. “The problem is getting Syria to agree on major regional issues like Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinians. And here we need the U.S.”
After Wednesday’s announcement, a U.S. State Department official who asked not to be identified told JTA that U.S. backing for an Israel-Syria peace deal would require Syrian concessions in areas that are of marginal concern to Israel, such as Syria’s border with Iraq and Syria’s treatment of its citizens.
“It is our hope that discussions between Israel and Syria will cover all the relevant issues, including the Syrian government’s support for terrorist groups, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq and intervention in Lebanon – as well as repression inside Syria,” the official said.
(This report was compiled by JTA managing editor Uriel Heilman in New York, diplomatic correspondent Leslie Susser in Jerusalem, Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas in Washington and correspondent Yigal Schleifer in Ankara.)