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Israel, Syria confirm indirect Golan talks

JERUSALEM – Israel and Syria disclosed Wednesday that they have been holding indirect talks through Turkish mediators since February 2007 and pledged in a joint statement to pursue negotiations “with good faith and an open mind.”

The announcement marked another setback for the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate Syria, Iran and their allies in the Middle East, coming the same day as a Lebanon peace agreement that acknowledged the political rise of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia supported by Syria and Iran.

Many in Israel and Syria greeted the first formal announcement of peace talks with skepticism, given the lack of strong support from the United States and the political difficulties facing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at home. Olmert is being questioned by police on bribery allegations while his administration pursues long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Wednesday’s announcement came as Olmert’s chief of staff and a senior political adviser were in Istanbul for the latest round of negotiations.

Israel and Syria “decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way,” the two governments said in their statement.

The talks center on Syria’s demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces have occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two countries opened contacts in February 2007 after Olmert visited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During a 2 1/2-hour closed-door meeting, Olmert and Erdogan agreed to have top Turkish officials serve as go-betweens, the official said.

Olmert disclosed in a newspaper interview last month that the two countries had exchanged messages through Turkish officials about peace talks.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad then confirmed this in a separate interview but said he believed direct talks were possible only under U.S. sponsorship and only after President Bush had left office.

The U.S. response to Wednesday’s announcement was polite. “I think Turkey played a good and useful role in this regard,” said Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch. “Israel and Turkey have apprised us in the past of these discussions.”

Israel seized the Golan, a militarily strategic heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee, in the 1967 Middle East war and effectively annexed the area 14 years later by extending Israeli civil law to its residents, most of them Arab Druze.

About 20,000 Israeli settlers now live in the Golan, a rugged terrain of Israeli military bases, vineyards and cattle ranches that many senior Israeli army officers say still holds strategic value for the nation’s defense.

Israel and Syria, then ruled by Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, appeared close to a peace deal in 2000 in talks mediated by the Clinton administration. But the negotiations faltered over questions of Syrian access to the Galilee.

“The last few years, since the negotiations have been frozen, were not helpful to the security situation on our northern border,” Olmert said at an education conference Wednesday in Tel Aviv. “That is still … our major source of concern.”

He added, “I reached the conclusion that the chance overrides the risk, and with this hope I am going for a new path.”

Eli Yishai, head of the Shas party, part of Olmert’s governing coalition, called the talks a threat to Israel.

“The prime minister in the past said that so long as Syria holds to its positions, one should not negotiate with it. It is not clear to me what has changed now,” he said.