Israel confirms it is holding indirect peace talks with Syria

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The Independent Online

Israel and Syria said in surprise announcements today they were conducting indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation.

Senior officials from both sides were currently in Turkey, an Israeli government official said. He would not confirm there had been direct contacts between the two delegations.

"The two sides have begun indirect talks under Turkish auspices," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement released two days before he was due to undergo further police questioning over suspected bribe-taking.

"The sides have declared their intention to conduct the talks without prejudice and with openness," it added. "They have decided to conduct the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace."

Syria's Foreign Ministry confirmed the indirect talks.

"Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in goodwill and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace," it said in a statement that closely echoed the wording of the Israeli announcement.

Syrian officials said a month ago they were cooperating with Turkey on efforts to relaunch negotiations with Israel after an eight-year hiatus.

The Israeli government official said discussions on reopening dialogue with Turkish mediation had begun last year.

Israel and Syria last held peace talks, in the United States, in 2000 but they collapsed after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the fate of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

A dispute over control of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which the Golan Heights overlook, was widely seen as the main stumbling block.

Olmert, who also relaunched peace talks with the Palestinians six months ago, has said he is willing to discuss handing back the Golan to Syria in return for Damascus severing ties with Iran and guerrilla movements hostile to Israel, notably the Palestinians of Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Last September, Israeli warplanes bombed what US officials said was a suspected North Korean-built nuclear facility in Syria, an attack that drew no apparent retaliation from Damascus.

Analysts, including former senior Israeli officials, believe there is little prospect of a peace between Israel and Syria without a shift in US policy toward Damascus, possibly once President George Bush steps down in January.

One view is that, aside from territory, Israel has little to offer Syria and that Damascus would move its allegiances away from Tehran only on the prospect of being embraced economically and diplomatically by the United States and its allies.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month that Washington would support Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria.

But she repeated US demands that Damascus should change its policies on Lebanon, where Syria's allies have been at odds with other factions backed by the United States.