Israel, Syria resume talks after 8 years

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Syria unexpectedly announced today the resumption of peace talks after an eight-year break, saying they have been speaking indirectly through Turkish mediators “in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace.”

The longtime adversaries each have something to gain from the dialogue. Israel wants to reduce Syrian support for anti-Israel militants in Gaza and Lebanon, while Syria is eager to improve ties with the U.S. and end its international isolation.

But many obstacles, including a skeptical Israeli public opposed to ceding the strategic Golan Heights to Syria, a scandal-plagued Israeli prime minister and Syria’s providing a home base for radical militant groups, will make it difficult to reach a deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad both recently confirmed their countries had exchanged messages. But today’s announcement, in identical statements issued minutes apart by Israel, Syria and Turkey, was the first official confirmation peace talks were under way.

Syria and Israel have started indirect peace talks under the auspices of Turkey,” the statement said. It said the two enemies “have declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind,” with a goal of reaching a comprehensive peace.

Noticeably absent from the announcement was the U.S., the traditional power broker in the region. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested the United States was informed in advance but was not participating.

“We were not surprised by it and we do not object to it,” she said. “We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria, Syria’s support of terrorism, repression of its own people.”

President Bush has included Syria in his “axis of evil,” criticizing Damascus for its backing of Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian militants.

In an address today, Olmert said the contacts with Syria had been under way for over a year and noted that previous Israeli leaders were prepared to make “painful concessions” for peace with Syria. Those efforts, by then-prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, failed.

“It is always better to talk than to shoot,” Olmert said, “and I’m happy the two sides have decided to talk,” though he predicted difficult negotiations.

An Israeli government official said Olmert’s chief of staff and diplomatic adviser have been in Turkey since Monday. Israel’s Channel 10 TV showed them returning home today.

“Their Syrian counterparts are in Turkey as well,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contacts. He declined to discuss the substance of the talks.

Turkey’s NTV television said the Israeli and Syrian delegations were in Istanbul but were not meeting directly.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, speaking to reporters during a visit to Bulgaria, said the start of indirect contacts was “an important development” and urged journalists not to be “impatient” concerning details of the meetings.

“These talks will continue indirectly in the period ahead,” the Turkish state-run Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying, refusing to say where the talks are taking place.

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