Israel, Syria confirm peace talks; timing raises questions

Times Staff Writers

In February 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met privately for more than two hours in Turkey.

The two leaders concluded that the time was ripe for Turkey to mediate indirect peace negotiations between longtime enemies Israel and Syria.

The existence and extent of those negotiations were acknowledged by all sides Wednesday, prompting speculation as to the timing, goals and prospects for success.

Syrian President Bashar Assad disclosed the negotiations last month, saying Turkish mediators had informed him that Israel was willing to return the disputed Golan Heights to Syria.

Israel declined to confirm the talks at the time, but an Israeli official said Wednesday's coordinated statements out of Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara were a sign that "the discussions had advanced" to a more serious level.

The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government had been "fully briefed" from the start on the initiative.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it."

But Perino added that President Bush, who labeled Syria part of an "axis of evil," remained concerned about Syria's support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its interference in Lebanon's politics.

The timing of the disclosure of the Israeli-Syrian talks may be somewhat awkward for the White House because Bush, in an address last week at the Israeli parliament, denounced as appeasers those who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals."

David Schenker, a Pentagon advisor on Syria earlier in the Bush administration, said U.S. officials, though favoring peace talks, probably were concerned that the negotiations could weaken international support for a United Nations tribunal that is investigating Syria's role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"I can imagine them telling the Israelis, 'Feel free to explore as much as you'd like, but you should be aware that there may be a high cost for U.S. policy goals in Lebanon,' " said Schenker, who directs research on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israeli and Syrian negotiating teams have been in Turkey since Monday. Officials in Damascus said the Israeli and Syrian delegations were staying at the same hotel in Ankara, with a Turkish mediator shuttling between their rooms.

One Western diplomat described the talks as "a racquetball game between advisors where the Turks are the ball."

Turkey is in a natural position to play go-between. The predominantly Muslim nation has long-standing political and military ties with Israel and has recently seen robust growth in its political and economic relationship with Syria.

The last set of serious negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus collapsed in 2000.

Syria primarily seeks a return of the Golan Heights, the elevated plateau that Israel captured in 1967. Israel seeks to end 60 years of hostility that have included three wars.

Last fall, Israeli jets bombed what Washington and Jerusalem later said was a Syrian nuclear reactor being built with North Korean help. The government in Damascus said the site was an unused military installation, and both sides -- perhaps with an eye on the negotiations -- seemed keen to keep the incident from sparking wider hostilities.

"The message was sent to Syria," said a Western diplomat in Damascus. "The Syrians understood it. The Israelis didn't want to shake the regime here. They sent the message and kept the matter silent."

Observers and analysts said Israel also hoped that a successful peace agreement would weaken Syria's ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Diplomats in Damascus say the Syrian leadership maintains deep strategic ties with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that could take a generation to unravel.

"You cannot put breaking with Iran as a precondition" for negotiations, one Western diplomat said. "But you can develop a relationship with Syria and use it to eventually undermine the relationship."

Olmert said Wednesday that the joint announcements represented the start of the next stage of negotiations.

"I have no illusions. Negotiations will not be easy, they will not be simple, and it is possible that they will take a long time and may eventually involve difficult concessions," he said.

Olmert made no mention of Assad's contention that Israel was willing to return the Golan Heights.

Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University professor and expert on Syria and Lebanon, said: "I have no reason to suspect that [Assad] would have lied about this in public. So if it's true that indeed the prime minister promised to cede the entire Golan, this removes the biggest obstacle. Whether or not [Olmert] will be able to keep this promise is already another question."

Any attempt by Olmert to give back the Golan Heights would probably face opposition from the Israeli public and the country's military leadership, who regard the area as a crucial strategic asset because it overlooks much of northern Israel. Israeli law was extended over the Golan Heights in 1981, and the region's vineyards and orchards have helped make it a favored vacation spot for many Israelis.

Reaction in Israel was largely skeptical, in part because of the announcement's timing. Olmert is scheduled to be questioned Friday for a second time as part of an accelerating investigation into cash payments he received from Jewish American businessman Morris Talansky. Meanwhile, U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority have yielded no public signs of progress, with Palestinian officials sounding increasingly pessimistic.

Olmert's many critics decried Wednesday's announcement as a headline-grabbing smoke screen.

"The prime minister is recruiting even the Syrians and the Turks to create a buzz that will drown out the Talansky investigation and testimony," said Danny Yatom, a lawmaker whose Labor Party is part of Olmert's governing coalition.

A Western diplomat based in the West Bank city of Ramallah said the talks sounded serious and "shouldn't be dismissed lightly." The negotiations, he said, may proceed faster than the Palestinian peace talks, which are complicated by the disputed status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the numerous Israeli settlements carving up the occupied West Bank.

"The Syrian track is a lot more straightforward," the diplomat said.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

Khalil reported from Jerusalem and Daragahi from Beirut. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem, Ziad Haidar in Damascus and Yesim Comert in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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