Israel and Syria officially announce peace talks

Golan Heights 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
Golan Heights 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In a dramatic announcement, the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel and Syria had begun indirect peace talks. The announcement comes after months of reports of unofficial messages going back and forth from Jerusalem to Damascus through Turkey, and was simultaneously announced in Ankara and Damascus. "Israel and Syria have begun indirect peace talks with the Syrians, under the auspices of Turkey," the statement read. "The two sides have declared their intention to conduct the negotiations in good faith and with openness." The statement said Syria and Israel have agreed to carry out the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace within the framework set up at the Madrid Conference. According to the statement, the two sides thanked Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for their role in the talks and for their "generous hospitality." The indirect talks started in February 2007 when Olmert visited Turkey and in a two-and-a-half hour private conversation with Erdogan agreed that Turkey would begin mediating between Israel and Syria with the goal of beginning peace negotiations. Olmert placed responsibility for the Syrian dossier in the hands of his chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman. The two have traveled to Turkey a number of times over the last year and held talks with Turkish officials. Currently they are in Ankara, and have been there since Monday, together with high ranking Syrian officials. The two teams, however, are not believed to be holding direct talks. One of the issues Turkey is trying to work out between Israel and Syria as a prelude to direct negotiations is whether a Syrian announcement of ending support for terrorism needs to precede an Israeli guarantee that it will withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, Western diplomats said in late April. According to the officials, one question being discussed in exchanges Turkey has carried between Jerusalem and Damascus over the last few months is what comes first; an Israeli announcement - in some yet-to-be-determined form - regarding withdrawal from the Golan, or a Syrian announcement of ending support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Israel is also keen on a Syrian commitment to distance itself from Iran as part of any future peace agreement. At the time, Olmert's office denied reports that a decision had been made that Turbowicz would head discussions with the Syrians until a meeting was arranged between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad.