JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and Syria said on Wednesday they had begun indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey, the first confirmation of negotiations between the long-time enemies in eight years.
In coordinated statements, Israel and Syria said they had begun an open dialogue with the aim of a comprehensive peace. Turkey said delegations of both countries, officially at war since Israel’s creation 60 years ago, were already in Istanbul.
The United States said it did “not object” but repeated its
criticism of Syria’s “support of terrorism” -- a reminder for many analysts that U.S. hostility to Damascus, and to its Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies, makes a Syria-Israel deal unlikely before President George W. Bush steps down in January.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who revealed the talks two days before he faces a police interrogation over graft allegations, said the process would be long, complex and could end in “difficult concessions” for Israel -- an apparent reference to his willingness to hand back the Golan Heights.
“It’s always better to talk than shoot,” Olmert said, without spelling out what concessions he was thinking of. Just eight months ago, Israeli jets bombed what U.S. officials have called a North Korean-designed nuclear facility in Syria.
An Israeli statement, echoed by one from Syria, said the two sides would now “conduct dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace”.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Israel had shown that it might return the Golan: “Without this commitment we cannot conduct any negotiation,” he told Reuters.
An Israeli official said Olmert had given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an unspecified “formula” on the Heights.
Israel took the plateau between Damascus and the Sea of Galilee in 1967. It held on to it in another war in 1973. The last peace talks broke down in 2000 over control of the shore of the lake, from which Israel draws much of its water.
For the United Nations, which maintains peacekeepers in the Golan, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Assad and Olmert as well as the Turkish government for its efforts as go-between for delegations from the two sides who met this week in Istanbul.
Among Olmert’s vast army of domestic critics, supporters of the 18,000 Jewish settlers in the Golan threatened to bolt his fragile coalition if he tries to give up the territory.
Others wondered aloud if the announcement was not timed to divert attention from Olmert’s troubles with the police. They will interview him for a second time on Friday over suspicions he took bribes from an American businessman. He denies it.
A snap Israeli television poll found 70 percent of people opposed giving back the Golan, and a majority also believing Olmert was using the talks to distract from domestic problems.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Washington was not surprised by the announcement: “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.”
Syrian officials said last month they were working with the Turks with a view to relaunching talks with Israel. Israeli government officials said discussions on reopening dialogue with Turkish mediation had begun last year.
Turkish officials said the talks were likely to continue in rounds lasting several days, once or twice a month. Two Olmert aides returned to Israel on Wednesday after two days in Turkey.
Israeli officials pledged that a peace process with Syria would not come at the expense of statehood talks with the Palestinians that Washington hopes can achieve a deal this year.
In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “We hope that the two parties will reach a peaceful solution.”
Olmert has said he is willing to discuss handing back the Golan Heights to Syria in return for Damascus severing ties with Iran and guerrilla movements hostile to Israel, notably Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Many analysts believe full-blown negotiations will only make progress with active U.S. involvement, since only Washington can offer Damascus the economic and diplomatic rewards it would seek in return for shifting its alliances away from Iran.
“The current U.S. administration is very hostile to the Syrian regime. Probably you still need the next administration to come to office for this effort to come near completion,” said Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere of the International Crisis Group.
Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Damascus, Alistair Lyon in Beirut, Paul de Bendern in Istanbul, Zerin Elci in Ankara, Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Mohammed Assadi in Bethlehem, Mohammed Abbas in Manama, and Brenda Gazzar, Dan Williams and Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Editing by Charles Dick