Nation/World

Israel, Syria start indirect peace talks

JERUSALEM – Despite months of tension, Israel and Syria appeared Thursday to be engaged in indirect talks on the outlines of a peace accord that would include an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights.

Direct, U.S.-brokered talks over the territory, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, collapsed in 2000. There have been periodic peace overtures since then, but the current effort is viewed as more serious because it is being mediated by Turkey, which has close relations with both countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described his hope for a deal in a pre-Passover interview last week, telling the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, “I am acting on this issue, and I hope that my efforts mature into something meaningful.”

Syrian officials announced this week that Olmert had informed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Israel’s willingness to “withdraw completely” from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty. Erdogan relayed the offer by telephone last week to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the officials said.

“What we need now is to find common ground through the Turkish mediator,” Assad said in remarks published Thursday. He said he would discuss details of Israel’s proposal with Erdogan when the Turkish leader visits Damascus this weekend for a Turkish-Syrian economic forum.

Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny the statements from Syria. But Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said the two countries’ leaders have been exchanging messages.

“The Syrians know what Israel is expecting from negotiations, and we know what the Syrians are expecting from negotiations,” Regev said.

Israeli advocates of a peace treaty argue that it would break the alliance between Syria and Israel’s most feared enemy, Iran.

In a sign that Iran is taking the peace overtures seriously, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Syria on Thursday against drawing closer to Israel and the United States and urged Islamic nations to stand up to Western “conspiracies.”



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