NBC News and news services
updated 5/21/2008 11:49:08 AM ET 2008-05-21T15:49:08

Israel and Syria on Wednesday said they were holding indirect peace talks through Turkish mediators — the first official confirmation of contacts between the longtime enemies.

In statements issued minutes apart, the two governments said they "have declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind," with a goal of reaching "a comprehensive peace."

Both nations thanked Turkey for its help, and Turkey issued its own confirmation. Muslim Turkey has good ties with both Israel and Syria.

There have been reports in recent months of new Israeli-Syrian contacts through Turkey, and Turkey's foreign minister said earlier this month that his country was trying to bring the sides together. But this was the first official confirmation that contacts have resumed.

Israel and Syria have officially been at war since Israel's creation 60 years ago.

U.S. officials said Israel and Turkey had notified them of the indirect talks.

"We do not object to this... We'll see how this progresses," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday.

Asked how the talks squared with President Bush's speech last week before Israel's Knesset in which he called negotiations with "terrorists and radicals" a "foolish delusion," Perino said one of the goals of the Turkish-mediated talks was cutting Syria's support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

An Israeli government official said Olmert's chief of staff and diplomatic adviser have been in Turkey since Monday. "In parallel their Syrian counterparts are in Turkey as well," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks. He declined to discuss the substance of the talks.

But one senior Israeli official, an expert on relations with Syria, predicted there was a "very long process" ahead. "The direct talks themselves have not yet started," the source said.

Bloody history
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have repeatedly failed, most recently in 2000. The nations have fought three wars, and their forces have also clashed in Lebanon.

Peace with Syria would require Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed. Today, the heights are home to 18,000 Israelis and roughly the same number of Druse Arabs who regard themselves as Syrian nationals. Syrian and Israeli forces are separated by U.N. peacekeepers.

A committee representing Israeli settlers on the Golan said Olmert's move "put the State of Israel's survival at risk."

Settlers: 'Irresponsible move'
"The people of Israel will not support such a deluded and irresponsible move, which would hand over such a vital Israeli strategic asset to the Arab axis of evil," the Golan Residents Council said.

Israelis generally regard the Golan as an important buffer against Syrian attack.

A Golan withdrawal would be extremely controversial among Israelis, and it could be difficult for a weakened leader like Olmert, whose already low popularity has been battered by a recent corruption investigation, to win public support for such a move. Peace talks with Syria also could divert attention from newly relaunched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which aim to reach an agreement by the end of the year.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians welcomed the latest news. "We want to reach a comprehensive peace and therefore we support talks between Israel and Syria," he said.

Demands dropped?
Israel, meanwhile, has demanded that Syria — which offers refuge to militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and supports the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah — distance itself from them, and from its Iranian ally, as a condition for talks. That condition appears to have been dropped.

Last September, Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on Syria, targeting an installation that the U.S. has said was an unfinished nuclear reactor built by North Korea. And in February, a top Hezbollah commander was assassinated in the Syrian capital in an attack widely assumed to have been engineered by Israel.

U.S.-mediated talks between the two countries broke down in 2000 because of disagreements over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. The main point of contention concerns a narrow strip of land along the Sea of Galilee, which Israel wants to keep to ensure its control of vital water supplies.

The latest round of contacts began in February 2007, when Olmert visited Turkey, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

Stuart Tuttle, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Israel, said the U.S. was not directly involved in the talks.

U.S. relations with Syria have been frosty for years because of Syria's meddling in Lebanon, support for militant groups in the Palestinian territories and Iraq and ties with Iran.

Corruption allegations dog Olmert
The announcement comes as Olmert finds himself mired in yet another corruption probe — the fifth investigation into his conduct since he took office in 2006. His dismal approval ratings have sparked widespread speculation about his ability to clinch a deal with the Palestinians or even survive in office much longer.

Opposition lawmakers charged the new announcement was designed to divert attention from Olmert's legal woes.

"Evidently the prime minister is so corrupt that he is not only taking cash money in envelopes but he is ready to trade the Golan Heights and our most vital interests in an attempt to save himself from criminal investigation," said lawmaker Yuval Steinitz of the hardline Likud Party.

Political scientist Efraim Inbar suggested the announcement might be linked to Olmert's current political woes and the apparent deadlock with the Palestinians.

"He might be using it as a ploy to divert public attention from his troubles and perhaps bring forward elections," said Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"He has failed with the Palestinians and he might be romancing the Syrians to pressure the Palestinians to reach an agreement," he said.

In Olmert's defense, Yoel Hasson of the prime minister's Kadima Party said he was only doing what other Israeli governments had done in the past. "As a prime minister, he should do what he can to try to achieve peace and to try to open the negotiations with Syria," Hasson said, adding that a final agreement should be subject to a national referendum.

The Israeli government official who spoke with The Associated Press said the talks with Syria "will not be at the expense of the Palestinian track."

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

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