JERUSALEM – Israel and Syria announced the resumption of peace talks after eight-years Wednesday, saying they have been speaking indirectly through Turkish mediators "in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says secret contacts between the two nations have been in progress for a year.
Olmert says the dramatic announcement about the contacts marks the "end of a phase," and could point to the beginning of peace negotiations. He says peace would require Israel to make difficult concessions.
Olmert was addressing an education conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening.
The longtime adversaries each have something to gain from the dialogue. Israel wants to reduce Syrian support for anti-Israel militants in Gaza and Lebanon, while Syria is eager to improve ties with the U.S. and end its international isolation.
But many obstacles, including a skeptical Israeli public opposed to ceding the strategic Golan Heights to Syria, a scandal-plagued prime minister and Syria's providing a home base for radical militant groups, will make it difficult to reach a deal.
Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad both recently confirmed that their countries had exchanged messages. But Wednesday's announcement, coming in identical statements issued minutes apart by Israel, Syria and Turkey, was the first official confirmation that peace talks were under way.
"Syria and Israel have started indirect peace talks under the auspices of Turkey," the statement said. It said the two enemies "have declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind," with a goal of reaching "a comprehensive peace."
The White House did not object to the talks, and hopes the forum addresses concerns with Syria, Reuters reported.
In an address Wednesday evening, Olmert said the announcement "represents the end of a phase in a process of over a year, during which we were trying to set up a track which would allow the holding of peace talks with Syria." He noted that previous Israeli leaders were prepared to make "painful concessions" for peace with Syria.
"It is always better to talk than to shoot," he said, "and I'm happy the two sides have decided to talk," predicting difficult negotiations.
An Israeli government official said Olmert's chief of staff and diplomatic adviser have been in Turkey since Monday. Israel's Channel 10 TV showed them returning home Wednesday evening.
"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.
Turkey's NTV television said the Israeli and Syrian delegations were in Istanbul but were not meeting directly.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, speaking to reporters during a visit to Bulgaria, said the start of indirect contacts was "an important development" but urged journalists not to be "impatient" concerning details of the meetings.
"These talks will continue indirectly in the period ahead," the Turkish state-run Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying, refusing to say where the talks are taking place.
Noticeably absent from the announcement was the U.S., the traditional power broker in the region. In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested the U.S. was informed in advance of the Israeli move but was not participating.
"We were not surprised by it and we do not object to it," she said. "We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria, Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people."
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have failed in the past, most recently in 2000. The nations have fought three wars, their forces have clashed in Lebanon, and more recently, Syria has given support to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip. Hamas and Islamic Jihad both maintain headquarters in Damascus.
The contours of any peace deal are well-known. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed. The last round of peace talks collapsed over disagreements over the last fraction of an Israeli withdrawal.
Israel wants Syria to end its support for anti-Israel militants and curb its ties with Iran, while demanding full peace relations.
While neither side appears ready to meet those conditions right now, renewed dialogue could quickly deliver other benefits.
Israel has been battling Hamas militants in Gaza since the Islamic group seized control of the area last June. Israeli talks with Syria could ultimately weaken Hamas.
"If Syria is successful in getting something from its negotiations with Israel, Hamas will be more pragmatic and flexible and will respond more to the conditions of international society," said Naji Shurrah, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said relations with Syria were "very strong" and he didn't expect any changes.
Israel also wants to reduce the influence of Hezbollah, which battled Israel to a stalemate during a 34-day war in 2006. Israel believes Hezbollah has replenished its arsenal with Syrian help.
Syria's Assad has expressed interest in restarting peace talks for years. His deep international isolation may have pushed him to take the plunge.
U.S. President George W. Bush has included Syria in his "axis of evil," criticizing Damascus for its backing of Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian militants.
Syria's relations with moderate Arab powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at their lowest in years, and last September, Israeli warplanes destroyed a suspected nuclear installation in Syria.
By going into talks with Israel, Syria can show the West that it is moderating its policies and perhaps reap political benefits with the next U.S. administration.
Syria "is not as interested in making peace with Israel as it is in making peace with Washington," said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as an Israeli negotiator in the last round of talks with Syria,
The Syrians are likely to use the indirect talks to test Israeli seriousness about returning the Golan. If Olmert fails to deliver, Syria could try to blame Israel and try to present themselves as the positive party.
Olmert has repeatedly signaled his willingness to pull out of the Golan, but actually doing so would not be easy. The Israeli leader, already unpopular since the Lebanon war, has seen his image further tarnished by a police investigation into his financial dealings. Reacting to news of the Syria talks, Olmert's opponents quickly accused him of trying to divert attention from his 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 hardline opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, a reference to suspicions that Olmert took cash bribes from a U.S. businessman.
Today the Golan Heights are home to 18,000 Israelis, who run thriving wine and tourism industries. Last month, Olmert spent his Passover vacation at an inn on the Golan. The area has been calm since the 1973 Mideast war, and many Israelis consider it a valuable buffer against attack.
"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," said the Golan Residents Council, a group representing Israeli settlers there.
About 17,000 Arabs, most members of the Druse sect, an offshoot of Islam, live in the territory. A few have taken Israeli citizenship, and the rest remain loyal to Syria.
A poll last month by the Dahaf Institute, an Israeli research firm, showed 51 percent of Israelis opposed to giving up the Golan, and 32 percent said they were in favor. Roughly three-quarters of respondents said they thought Assad is not serious about peace. The poll questioned 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
One question is whether the Syrian track will divert attention away from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which aim to reach an agreement by the end of the year.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed news of the Israel-Syria contacts. "We hope that the two sides will reach peace," he said.
Israeli officials insisted the talks will not be at the expense of the Palestinians.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.