Israel, Syria begin indirect peace talks

Ending an eight-year hiatus, Israel and Syria have begun indirect peace talks under Turkish auspices, simultaneous statements from Ankara, Jerusalem and Damascus said Wednesday, dpa reported.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israeli and Syrian officials were staying in separate hotels in Istanbul and Turkish mediators were shuttling between them.

The Israeli Ha'aretz daily named the Israeli officials as senior Olmert aides Yoram Turbovitz and Shalom Turjeman, and said they had been in Turkey since Monday afternoon.

But Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev would not relate to a reported statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem that Israel had assured Damascus it was willing to carry out a full withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.

"Israel fully understands what Syrian expectations are as to the negotiation process and Syria fully understands what are the Israeli expectations," was all he would tell Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Samir al-Taqi, head of the Damascus-based al-Sharq Office for Strategic Studies, told the television news channel al-Jazeera that "Syria would not have agreed to indirect talks had it not received assurances from Israel about full withdrawal."

A statement put out early Wednesday afternoon by Olmert's office said "both sides have declared their intention to hold these talks openly and in good faith."

"They decided to hold a serious and continuous dialogue, with the intention of arriving at an embracing peace treaty, in accordance with the framework (laid down by the 1991) Madrid peace conference," the statement continued.

Turkish diplomats have already been shuttling between the sides since early last year, to find out whether there is enough basis to restart the negotiations which were broken off in early 2000.

Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed to Qatar's al-Watan newspaper last month that Israel and Syria have been exchanging messages though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since April 2007.

He said that if enough "common ground" was found between the sides then talks would be revived, but not in secret.

"Any talks will be public but not direct. Talks will be conducted through Turkey," Assad told the daily.

The last round of peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in January 2000, because of a dispute over the future of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel and whose return Syria insists on as a prerequisite for peace.

A last-ditch effort by then-US president Bill Clinton, who met then-Syrian president Hafez Assad (father of the current Syrian leader) in March of that year, failed to break the impasse.

Although Jerusalem has tried repeatedly to reach a peace treaty with Syria, any planned withdrawal from the Golan Heights can be expected to run into staunch opposition in Israel.

Polls conducted in April 2006 show a majority of Israelis oppose handing back the Golan to Syria, even in return for peace.

Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stated that any proposed Israel-Syria peace treaty which included a significant withdrawal from the Golan would be put to a referendum before it was signed.

Opponents of any withdrawal constantly cite the fact that Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, and the so-called "Golan Lobby" of legislators can be expected to try and foil any parliamentary initiative to ratify Israel's giving up the territory.

Around 20,000 Israeli settlers live in the Golan.

The announcement of the resumption of talks comes as Olmert finds himself mired in a police investigation for alleged corruption, sparking opponents of the unpopular premier to claim that the announcement of the resumption of talks was an attempt to divert attention from his troubles.

"Olmert has just proven that he is willing to sell off anything, including the safety of the State of Israel in order to take the public's mind off the criminal actions he is suspected of," opposition legislator Gilad Erdan said.

Danny Yatom, a coalition lawmaker, said the announcement of the restart of negotiations was "a media spin, and one that could even hurt such talks."

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