Israel and Syria have opened indirect negotiations for the first time in eight years, in a bid to reach a “comprehensive peace” and end six decades of conflict.
According to a joint statement, the sides are holding talks through Turkish intermediaries, rather than face to face. Both have pledged to “pursue the dialogue in a serious and continuous way”.
If the process moves forward to direct negotiations and leads to a peace agreement on a return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, it would mark a rare breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was only last September that Israel bombed a secret installation in Syria, which the US claimed was a nuclear site (a charge denied in Damascus).
However, analysts pointed out the two countries faced an uphill struggle, arguing that a deal would be hard to conclude without direct US involvement and with a severely weakened Israeli government.
Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, was quoted as saying the talks would move to a direct negotiations phase if Israel showed it was “serious.”
The US, which had opposed Israeli talks with Syria, gave a guarded welcome to the news, saying if asked Washington would consider playing a role in facilitating the discussions.
But David Welch, the US State Department’s top official on the Middle East, made clear Israel’s talks with the Palestinians offered more chances of a breakthrough.
The Syrian-Israeli initiative followed an Arab-brokered agreement on the Lebanese crisis, in which Damascus, backer of the Hizbollah-led opposition, has been a main player. The two developments are likely to lead to an improvement in Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbours and ease its international isolation. A deal with Syria would end the conflict with the last remaining Arab neighbour that poses a military threat to Israel. It would no doubt require Damascus to end support for Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement.
It could weaken the hand of Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally, and undermine Tehran’s regional ambitions. An Arab peace initiative, first proposed in 2002, has offered Israel full peace with all Arab states if it withdraws from territories occupied in 1967.
Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, drew fire from domestic political opponents, who accused him of deflecting attention from police investigations into alleged financial misconduct.
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