Israel and Syria Begin Peace Talks

Turkey to mediate first talks between feuding countries in nearly a decade.

JERUSALEM, May 22, 2008 — -- From a region where the news seems to be almost always bad, today saw a glimpse of hope.

Israel and Syria have started peace talks. Admittedly both countries are referring to indirect talks but for two nations that are technically still at war, this is progress.

Jerusalem and Damascus released coordinated statements acknowledging that a dialogue is under way mediated by the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Rumors that the two countries have been engaged in informal talks have circulated for some months. Both President Bashar Assad of Syria and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are on the record declaring their interest in breathing new life into the peace process.

The last time the two countries talked was in 2000, with the Clinton administration playing matchmaker. Then the deal fell apart over final disagreements on territorial concessions by Israel.

At stake is the future of the occupied Golan Heights, land that Israel took by force during the Six Day War in 1967. Syria wants the land back, but Israel has said in return Syria must turn away from Iran and stop supporting militant Palestinian groups with bases in Damascus.

The Syrian regime had been asking for American participation in any new process and in recent times President Bush has been dismissive of Syrian overtures.

The Bush administration has long cast Syria in the role as one of the bad guys in the region, criticizing its close ties with Iran and its reputed meddling in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon.

Analysts today say that for both sides to go public implies that the Americans are now on board.

One well-regarded Arabic newspaper this weekend reported that the United States has given its blessing to the two sides, and this may have led to today's statements.

In the last month Ehud Olmert has said Israel would be willing to cede all the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

Cynics at home have already accused him of releasing news of the peace talks to deflect the current police investigation into his alleged bribe taking.

A senior Israeli government spokesman denied this categorically when questioned by ABC News.

Since Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, a number of settlements have been established, and 17,000 Israelis now live on the contested land.

The land also has strategic importance for its commanding position and its proximity to the Sea of Galilee, one of Israel's principal water sources.

The history of the border between what is now Israel and Syria has been long and complicated. Various treaties and truces have defined different lines of separation, and there is some confusion over exactly where the international border lies today.

The unnamed Israeli government sources said the indirect talks were taking place in a "very serious manner" and that "comprehensive solutions" were being sought by both sides in "good faith."

Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who was involved in behind-the-scenes talks with Syrian counterparts in recent years, told ABC News today: "This is an important breakthrough. It means the two sides are serious and the fact that the Isralei statement refers to comprehensive peace means that everything that needs to be discussed is being discussed."

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