Israel denies deal on full Golan pullout

Syrian FM: "We received commitments"; PMO announces Turkish mediated peace negotiations.

Golan Heights 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
Golan Heights 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hours after the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) announced that Israel and Syria had begun indirect peace talks, the PMO denied Wednesday a statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to the effect that Damascus received commitments for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights up to the June 4, 1967 border during Turkish-brokered indirect talks. "As (Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert has said in the past, Syria knows what Israel demands of it and Israel knows what Syria expects it to do," officials in the PMO said. "We received commitments for a withdrawal from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 line," Moallem had told AFP during a visit to Bahrain. "This is not new. It started since Rabin's pledge [for a pullout] in 1993, and all subsequent Israeli prime ministers abided by it." The announcement of the talks 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 Ankar, and have been there since Monday, together with high ranking Syrian officials. The two teams, however, are not believed to be holding direct talks. 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. In an interview with Newsweek and The Washington Post last week, the prime minister said Israel was examining the possibility of peace with Damascus, even though Jerusalem was concerned over Syria's role in the region. "We are very unhappy with the continued intensive involvement of Syria in the affairs of Lebanon and the lack of a democratic process in electing a new president in Lebanon. We are also unhappy with the continued links between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas," he said. Olmert said Israel was aware of US interests in the region, including in Lebanon and rejected reports that US President George W. Bush was blocking peace talks between Israel and Syria. The surprise announcement of peace negotiations comes at a time of increasing political uncertainty in Israel, stemming from the current investigation of Olmert.