Israel confirms Golan Heights talks with Syria

The two countries, after an eight-year hiatus, are talking about an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace.

After an eight-year hiatus, Israel and Syria have resumed negotiations about an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a normalization of ties with Syria.

After weeks of official quiet amid Syrian claims that Turkey was serving as a go between for the sides, a surprise statement from the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed a decision to conduct indirect peace talks in a "serious and continuous way, in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace."

In response to the Israeli statement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem said that Israel had already agreed to a full return of the entirety of the territory it captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, the daily Haaretz reported. That includes not only the Golan's strategic plateau, but also the descending slopes that reach to the eastern shore of Israel's natural water reservoir, the Sea of Galilee.

"It's pretty dramatic," said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from Tel Aviv University, speaking on Israel Radio.

"The Syrians have demanded from the beginning of the negotiations in 1991, a full Israeli withdrawal to the shores of the Sea of Galilee" as a precondition for peace talks. "I have no reason to think that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad is lying in public. If the prime minister of Israel said to him that he's ready to withdraw to the Sea of Galilee, a very serious obstacle has been removed."

For Israel, the new track of peace talks marks a departure with its US ally, which for years has preferred to isolate Syria as punishment for giving shelter for the Iraqi insurgency.

Israeli proponents of peace talks with Syria have argued that normalization of ties with Damascus would count as an important reversal of Iran's growing power within the Middle East. Syria serves as an important link to two Iranian allies that have threatened Israel: as a conduit of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as host to the offices of Hamas's political politburo in exile.

For Syria, Israel's most powerful neighbor after Egypt, the peace talks serve to reassert itself as the linchpin of regional peace after years of focus on the Palestinian negotiating track. Engaging Israel in peace talks also helps Syria to avoid become wholly reliant on its alliance with Iran.

Because the Golan Heights has a commanding overlook of much of northern Israel, many Israelis argue that they can never risk returning it to Syria.

A peace deal with the Syrians is considered a substantially simpler treaty to negotiate compared with one with the Palestinians, as giving back the Golan Heights involves security arrangements, water rights, and resettlement for only a few thousand Israeli settlers.

Critics of Israel's government said the timing of the announcement is intended to deflect public discussion of a police investigation into cash sums accepted by Prime Minister Olmert from American Jewish donors.

The announcement sharpened a debate over whether a prime minister under the threat of indictment has the moral authority to make decisions on war and peace.

Since the 1991 Madrid Peace conference initiated the first Israeli-Syrian peace talks, talks have occurred intermittently.

The last formal negotiations broke off in Shephardstown, Md., when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected Syrian demands that the withdrawal reach the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967, which come up to the Sea of Galilee.

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