Syria, Israel announce search for 'comprehensive peace'

ANKARA, Turkey — After eight years of stalemate and periodic tension, Israel and Syria announced Wednesday that they have launched "serious and continuous" indirect peace talks aimed at ending one of the region's longest-running disputes.

In similar statements issued from Damascus and Jerusalem, the rival neighbors said 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 the statement from Prime Minister Olmert's office. "They decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way, in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace."

If successful, the talks could lead to a broader shift in regional dynamics by returning the Golan Heights to Syria, cutting off critical support for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and diminishing the influence of Iran in the region.

Reaching a peace deal with Israel that led to a return of the Golan Heights could also give Syrian President Bashar Assad a critical success to consolidate his power and try to take his country in a new direction.

"I think it’s the biggest game in the region," said Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The announcement marked the first official confirmation from Syria and Israel that they have embarked on a new peace initiative.

Though they are not sitting together in a 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 have been meeting in Istanbul since Monday.

The Turkish-mediated talks mark the first time since 2000 that Syria and Israel have engaged in substantive negotiations that would dramatically change the regional dynamics.

The central issue is return of the Golan Heights, the mountains hills 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 exchange for the Golan Heights, Israel would likely 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. "And it would also cut off Iranian influence into Lebanon and Palestine."

Reaching a peace deal with Israel that led to a return of the Golan Heights could also give Syrian President Bashar Assad a critical success to rebuild his power and influence in the region.

"He needs the Golan as a cornerstone of a new beginning," said Salem, who was in Ankara on a fact-finding mission.

News of the peace talks came on the same day that rival political factions from Lebanon reached a long-sought compromise to end a volatile standoff that was pushing Syria’s neighbor towards a new civil war.

Meeting in Qatar, Lebanese leaders agreed to give Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government veto power in the parliament. The deal, reached after Hezbollah fighters seized parts of Beirut earlier this month in a short military showdown, was viewed as a significant victory for the Shiite forces that hold significant sway over the country's future.

Salem said that Syrian pragmatists involved in the peace talks appear to be prepared to cut off their ties to Hezbollah in exchange for return of the Golan Heights.

The genesis of Wednesday's announcement came in February, 2007 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met in Ankara with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

After the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Turkish negotiators began mediating between Syrian and Israeli officials who traveled to Turkey.

"In the past few months, those meetings have gained momentum," said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev.

Turkey has been able to serve in the critical role because it's trusted by both Syria and Israel.

"I think that Turkey is the only regional player that can act as mediator in this capacity," said Cagri Erhan, vice president of the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in Ankara.

By setting itself up as a prosperous nation that refused powerful United States demands that it allow American troops to use Turkey as a launching pad for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Muslim nation has established itself as a credible model, said Salem.

"They found the third way in the Middle East," he said.

In Israel, the news was greeted with a mix of optimism and skepticism. Olmert made the decision to announce the informal talks at a time when his political career is imperiled by an unfolding political corruption scandal.

Israeli police and prosecutors are investigating 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.

Talansky is scheduled to be questioned on Sunday for an unusual public court deposition where the allegations are expected to be detailed publicly for the first time.