ANKARA, Turkey — Newly launched peace talks between Syria and Israel face daunting odds, but a breakthrough could bring fundamental change to the Mideast by returning the Golan Heights to Syria, cutting off support for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and diminishing Iran's regional influence.
After eight years of stalemate and tension, the two countries announced Wednesday that they had launched a bid to end one of the region's longest-running disputes.
In similar statements issued from Damascus and Jerusalem, the rival neighbors officially declared that they are taking part in indirect negotiations with Turkish diplomats serving as mediators.
"The two sides stated their intention to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind," according to a statement issued by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Syrian foreign ministry. "They decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way, in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace."
It could also give Syrian President Bashar Assad a critical success to consolidate his power and point his country in a new direction.
"I think it's the biggest game in the region," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
Negotiations between two nations that have officially been at war for 60 years face significant hurdles on a long road that could lead nowhere.
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told reporters on Wednesday that the Bush administration remains skeptical of Syria because it continues to back Hezbollah, allows top Hamas leaders to operate openly in Damascus and retains close ties to Iran.
"That said, Israel lives in a difficult neighborhood," said Welch. "It's in its national interest to find ways to expand the circle of peace if other people are serious about doing it, and I see that they're undertaking that experiment now."
The news was met with deep skepticism in Israel, where Olmert's political future is in jeopardy because of a deepening political corruption investigation that could bring down his fragile coalition government before he can ever approve direct talks with Syria.
Israel and Syria announced the new peace initiative hours before an Israeli judge eased a gag order and allowed Israeli journalists to report more details of the Olmert investigation.
Israeli police and prosecutors are looking into allegations that Olmert accepted cash bribes from an American businessman, Morris Talanksy. Both Olmert and Talansky have denied the charges, but the prime minister has vowed to step down if he is indicted.
"This is very dangerous for Israel that a Prime Minster is trying to negotiate because of his personal interest and out of weakness," said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker with Israel's opposition Likud party.
In a televised speech Wednesday night, Olmert said the possible rewards of launching talks that could involve "difficult concessions" outweighed the risks after an eight-year impasse that did nothing to help Israel.
"In such a situation, it is always better to talk than to shoot, and I am pleased that both sides decided to do so," said Olmert.
Though they are not sitting in the same room, Syrian and Israeli mediators were in Istanbul on Wednesday for parallel talks under Turkey's auspices, according to a senior Israeli official. The two sides began the latest talks on Monday and wrapped up the discussions Wednesday afternoon.
The initiative marked the first time since 2000 that Syria and Israel have engaged in substantive negotiations that could dramatically change the regional dynamics.
The central issue is return of the Golan Heights, the mountainous region Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
Talks between the two sides came tantalizingly close to securing a peace deal in 2000, but they broke down over a small strip of land along the Sea of Galilee that Syria wanted back, but Israel refused to relinquish.
In the new talks, Syria sought a firm commitment from Israel that it was willing to give up all the disputed land.
On Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said it would not have gone forward if Israel had not offered such assurances.
In exchange for the Golan Heights, Israel probably will expect Syria to sign a peace treaty with Israel, end its support for Hamas political leaders based in Damascus and sever ties to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon who receive critical Iranian money and weapons via Syria.
Salem, who recently spent time in Damascus talking to negotiators involved in the talks, said there is a growing unease among some Syrian leaders about the influence of Iran in the Middle East.
"Peace between Syria and Israel would cause a serious rupture in the Syrian-Iranian relationship as it would represent a fundamental parting of the ways," said Salem.
News of the peace talks came on the same day that Lebanon's warring factions reached an agreement to end an 18-month political impasse that spilled into street fighting earlier this month with deadly clashes between opposition forces led by Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim fighters and pro-government Sunni Muslim fighters.
The breakthrough gives the Iranian-backed Hezbollah camp its two main demands: veto power over all government decisions and a revised electoral law that's designed to better represent Lebanon's disparate sects.
The agreement is an important political victory for Hezbollah, whose allies seized large swaths of Beirut this month in a show of military superiority that left the fragile, Western-allied government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora with few cards to play.
(Staff writers Warren Strobel contributed to this report from Washington and Hannah Allam contributed from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Special Correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008