Israel and Syria start talking

Amid cries of political spin from the opposition, the Prime Minister’s Office announced this week that Israel and Syria were conducting “indirect” peace negotiations under the auspices of the Turkish government.

The news was released simultaneously on Wednesday morning in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara.

“Both sides have declared their intention to hold the talks honestly and openly and to maintain a continuous and serious dialogue,” the press release read, “in order to reach comprehensive peace in accordance with the framework decided upon at the Madrid Conference.”

Turkey’s efforts have been ongoing for six months, and were discussed in visits to Ankara by Mr Olmert and President Shimon Peres. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met Syrian President Bashar Assad last week and pledged to bring the sides together.

Yoram Turbovich, Mr Olmert’s chief of staff, and Shalom Turjeman, his diplomatic advisor, arrived in Ankara on Monday at the same time as a Syrian delegation, though they did not meet.

The basic outline of an Israel-Syria deal has been agreed in the past. Israel will return the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, and establish diplomatic relations with Damascus. The main points of contention are the scale of Israel’s pullback and Israeli demands that Syria stop hosting terror groups and acting as a conduit for arms from Iran to Hizbollah.

Talks between the two sides began in 1991 after the Madrid Conference, but former President Hafez Assad turned down an offer of a treaty from then-premier Ehud Barak in 2000.

Israeli sources responded to criticism of the talks that the negotiations were being conducted according to the Madrid Conference and nothing had yet been decided over the Golan. However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem said this week that Israel had already agreed to give up the entire Golan.

    Last updated: 11:51am, May 29 2008