Olmert Labels Syria Talks 'Historic Breakthrough'

Israel and Syria will begin indirect negotiations in Istanbul in a few weeks, in an effort to reach a peace agreement. The talks will be held through Turkish mediators.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Haaretz yesterday that "there had been a development in Syrian positions and the contacts with Syria are a historic breakthrough." Olmert added that "these exchanges have been ongoing for a long time and they have now matured."

On Monday, a secret mini-conference was held in Istanbul to establish the framework of the negotiations and its content. At the end of the meetings a coordinated joint declaration announced that talks will begin.

"Israel and Syria began indirect peace talks under Turkish auspices," the statement read. "Both sides declared that their intention is to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind. They decided to conduct the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner in a bid to reach a comprehensive peace in accordance with the framework established at the Madrid peace conference."

At the 1991 Madrid peace conference, it was decided to hold direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors on the basis of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338.

The efforts to reach agreement on starting talks began in February 2007 with the exchange of informal notes between Syria and Israel through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The talks on Monday involved, on the Israeli side, the Prime Minister's Bureau chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and his political adviser, Shalom Turgeman. Syria was represented by the legal counselor of the Foreign Ministry, Dr. Riad Daoudi. The Syrian official is a veteran of behind-the-scenes talks with Israel, and held talks with Uri Sagie, adviser to Ehud Barak, even after talks with Syria broke down in 2000.

Facilitating the indirect talks was Erdogan's foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu.

Speaking yesterday at a Tel Aviv conference on education, Prime Minister Olmert said that "negotiations with Syria will not be easy and will not be simple, it may take a long time and it will involve concessions.

"After evaluating all the data and receiving the opinion of the defense establishment, I reached the conclusion that the chance [for success] is greater than the risk, and with this hope we are today getting on our way."

Olmert added that the resumption of negotiations with Syria is a national obligation that must be tried. "That was the same conclusion that [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak had reached when each in turn invested efforts in this direction and were even willing to make painful, extraordinary concessions in order to reach peace with Syria," Olmert said.

"The years that have passed have not improved our security situation along the northern border, which is still a source of major concern regarding the deterioration of our security situation. Under such conditions it is always best to talk and not shoot, and I am happy that the two sides have agreed to talk.'

A senior source in the Prime Minister's Bureau declined to offer details on the content of the talks but said they were held while the representatives of Israel and Syria sat in separate rooms, with the Turkish facilitators shuttling between them. According to the Israeli source, the two sides agreed to hold indirect meetings every few weeks in Istanbul.

"The fact that the Syrian president agreed to the framework of the negotiations grants credibility to his intentions," the senior source said. "It is obvious to us that if we reach agreement it will be respected and it will be possible to implement it.

"During the talks Israel did not make any preliminary promises on the Golan Heights and did not refer to the promises made by Rabin," the source said. He was referring to a 1994 promise Rabin made to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that if Syria met Israel's security conditions, Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said last night during a visit to Bahrain that Israel had commited to withdrawing to the June 4, 1967 lines, noting that this was not a new development.

"Already in 1993 the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin commited to this, and since then all other prime ministers have followed," the Syrian minister said.

He also expressed hope that Israel will be serious in the talks so that progress will be achieved and make direct talks possible.

Talks between Israel and Syria at Shepherdstown in 2000 stalled over the question of the border of June 4, which the Syrians claim constituted the border on the waterline of Lake Kinneret, while Israel maintains that because the lake has dried up over the years, the waterline moved several hundred meters. Over the years, the waterline had served as an unofficial border.

Last night, former Syrian information minister, Mahdi Dahlallah, said that if there is a peace agreement "then there will no longer be any need for resistance," a direct reference to Hezbollah in Lebanon and also Hamas.

Dahlallah said that the "resistance is not an end in and of itself but a means for restoring land that was taken away, and therefore if this territory is restored there is no reason for resistance."

Meanwhile, senior Israeli security figures suggested yesterday that there should be no exaggerated expectations of the renewed talks.

The same sources said that it is hard to believe that the exchanges will come to fruition in the near future, certainly not in terms of a peace agreement between the two countries.

At the Israel Defense Forces, the assessment is that a major component that may encourage a Syrian agreement for an accord depends on American involvement.

IDF sources say that if the Bush administration is willing to place the talks under its aegis and Syrian President Bashar Assad is convinced that U.S. support will be extensive in return for peace with Israel, progress will be achieved.

Syria "is not as interested in making peace with Israel as it is in making peace with Washington," said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as an Israeli negotiator in the last round of talks with Syria.

The U.S. administration had been updated on the status of the talks between the two sides, and Washington announced yesterday that it is not opposed.

"We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on the unexpected joint announcement by Israel and Syria yesterday that they were conducting indirect talks through Turkey.

Perino said that the United States was not involved in the effort, which was "a decision undertaken by Israel," but added that the administration hoped "that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria - Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people. And so we will see how this progresses."

Israel informed Egypt and the Palestinian Authorities of the existence of indirect talks with Syria before the official announcement yesterday. It sought to assure the Palestinians that Israel is in no way opting for the Syrian track at the expense of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.