ANKARA – Turkey is holding talks separately with Israeli and Syrian negotiation teams in a bid to pave the ground for the resumption of direct negotiations for the first time after a eight-year hiatus.
"Syria and Israel have launched indirect peace negotiations under Turkey’s auspices," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued non Wednesday, May 21.
"Syria and Israel have declared that they will continue these negotiations with good will and open minds."
Both Damascus and Tel Aviv have also confirmed the talks.
"Syria has started indirect peace talks with Israel under Turkish auspices," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"Both sides have expressed their desire to conduct the talks in goodwill and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace," added the statement issued at the same time Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert’s confirmed the talks.
Senior officials from Syria and Israel have been holding separate talks with a high-ranking Turkish since Monday, May 19, reported Al-Jazeera news network.
The Turkish delegation is chaired by Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu.
The Syrian and Israeli teams will be visiting Ankara regularly over the coming weeks and the level of representation will change in case of progress in the indirect talks.
The sides had also agreed that the talks should be based on the terms of reference of the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the exchange of land for peace.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad singled in April readiness for peace if Israel withdraws from the occupied Golan Heights, a strategic Syrian plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 war and annexed in 1990.
Israel and Syria last held peace talks in the United States in 2000 but they collapsed after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the fate of the Golan.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Wednesday that Damascus had received in advance commitments for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
"We received commitments for a withdrawal from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 line," Muallem told Agence France-Presse (AFP) during a visit to Bahrain.
"This is not new. It started since (slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak) Rabin’s pledge (for a total pullout) in 1993, and all subsequent Israeli prime ministers abided by it."
Rabin gave a verbal undertaking to a full withdrawal from the Golan, right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee — Israel’s main water source.
But subsequent Israeli prime ministers baulked at accepting the Syrian demand as a precondition to talks as the undertaking had not been given in writing.
Olmert has said he is willing to discuss handing back the Golan to Syria in return for Damascus severing ties with Iran and resistance groups, notably Hamas and Hizbullah.
Israeli analyst Moshe Maoz suggested Olmert would not be able to deliver.
"Olmert doesn’t have the majority support of the Israeli parliament and public support for him is low at this time," he told Haaretz.
"Seventy percent of Israelis are against returning the Golan Heights even with a peace agreement."
Maoz believes the announcement aims to "divert attention" from Olmert’s latest corruption scandal, the fifth investigation into his conduct since he took office in 2006.
"Olmert is cynically trying to fool decent, peace-advocating citizens to deflect attention from the cash envelope," said Labour MK Shelley Yachimovich.
MK Zahav Gal-On said that while she supports withdrawing from the Golan in exchange for peace, she is "concerned about Olmert’s initiative as he does not have the moral validity to advance political process aimed at distracting" public opinion.
(IslamOnline.net and agencies)