JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel set terms for concluding a peace deal with Syria on Thursday, closing ranks with Washington in demanding Damascus distance itself from Iran and stop supporting Palestinian and Lebanese militants.
Coordinated announcements on Wednesday by Israel and Syria that they had begun indirect talks in Turkey, the first confirmation of negotiations between the long-time enemies in eight years, drew a lukewarm response from the United States.
Echoing U.S. comments, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel wanted to live in peace with its neighbours but Syria needed to “distance itself completely” from “problematic ties” with Iran.
Syria, she said, must also cease “supporting terror — Hezbollah, Hamas”, groups backed by the Islamic Republic.
The United States, in its initial public reaction to Israeli-Syrian contacts, said it did “not object” to talks but repeated its criticism of Syria’s “support of terrorism”.
Many analysts say U.S. hostility to Damascus, and to its Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies, make a Syria-Israel deal unlikely before President George W. Bush steps down in January.
The United States and Israel also consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. The Islamist group, which seized the Gaza Strip last June, opposes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s statehood talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert, who revealed the discussions with Syria two days before he faces a police interrogation over graft allegations he has denied, said the reopened peace track would be long and complex.
“Everyone knows that Olmert wants to end his term on a diplomatic note, not a criminal one. The question is, what will come first — an indictment or a peace treaty,” columnist Yossi Verter wrote in newspaper Haaretz.
A key issue will be the future of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move that did not win international recognition.
Negotiations with Syria, Olmert said, could result in “difficult concessions” for Israel — an apparent reference to a willingness to hand back the Golan Heights.
The last peace talks, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, broke down in 2000 over control of the shore of the Sea of Galilee, over which the heights loom and where Israel draws much of its water.
“It’s always better to talk than shoot,” Olmert said on Wednesday, without spelling out any possible concessions.
Just eight months ago, Israeli jets bombed what U.S. officials have called a North Korean-designed nuclear facility in Syria.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Israel had shown that it might return the Golan: “Without this commitment we cannot conduct any negotiation,” he told Reuters.
Among Olmert’s vast army of domestic critics, supporters of the 18,000 Jewish settlers in the Golan threatened to bolt his fragile coalition if he tries to give up the territory.
Others wondered aloud if the announcement was not timed to divert attention from Olmert’s troubles with the police. They will interview him for a second time, on Friday, over suspicions he took bribes from an American businessman.
A snap television poll found 70 percent of Israelis opposed giving back the Golan, and a majority also believing Olmert was using the talks to distract from domestic problems.