JERUSALEM – 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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."
is cynically trying to fool decent, peace-advocating citizens to
deflect attention from the cash envelope," she said, according to
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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