JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel and Syria will begin another round of indirect Turkish-mediated peace talks on Tuesday amid hints of progress but also complaints that Damascus is still arming Israeli arch-enemy Hezbollah.
Two advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbowitz — will travel to Turkey for what will be the fourth round of talks, an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Israel’s desire for peace is very serious,” the official said. “That is why we expect that the process that has been begun will soon evolve into direct bilateral negotiations with a view to achieving significant results.”
The talks started in May after an eight-year freeze, and the third round was held in early July.
Under the format of the talks, Israeli and Syrian officials do not see each other and Turkish diplomats shuttle between the two sides.
On Monday, Syria’s ambassador to the United States called for an end to the “state of war” with Israel.
“We desire to recognise each other and end the state of war,” Imad Mustafa told a gathering of activists in Washington allied with Israel’s Peace Now movement.
“Here is then a grand thing on offer. Let us sit together, let us make peace, let us end once and for all the state of war.”
However, he said that any peace agreement would depend on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it occupied in war in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said earlier this month that Damascus would establish “normal” relations with Israel, including the opening of embassies, if the Turkish-mediated negotiations lead to a peace deal.
The resumption of talks comes amid hints in the press that Damascus was adopting confidence-building measures but also a denunciation by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak that Syria is continuing to arm Hezbollah.
Barak, who is in the United States for talks with senior officials on a range of Middle East issues, made the claim in a meeting with US Vice President Dick Cheney.
“To our great disappointment, we have observed over the past two years that the number of missiles held by Hezbollah has doubled, if not tripled, and their range expanded, all with the close and consistent help of Syria,” he said.
It is two years since Israel launched a blistering war on Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas rcaptured two of its soldiers, but failed to stop the militia’s ability to hit the Jewish state with rockets.
A UN Security Council resolution that brought an end to the war stipulated that weapons should only be in the hands of the Lebanese state and called for an end to supplying militias from abroad. Israel has consistently accused Syria of continuing to rearm Hezbollah.
“These violations have reached such a level that they approach breaking the delicate balance of forces in Lebanon,” Barak added. “Israel considers this to be a real and serious danger.”
Meanwhile, the Haaretz newspaper quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying Damascus had adopted unspecificed “tangible” measures intended to show it was serious about peace.
Israel and Syria have been formally in a state of war since the Jewish state was created in 1948, but the two countries since signed an armistice.
The last negotiations broke down in 2000 over the fate of the strategic Golan plateau which runs down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main source of fresh water, and is currently home to some 20,000 Jewish settlers.
Israel has demanded that Syria cut its ties to Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas movement which rules Gaza, and other armed groups pledged to the Jewish state’s demise, as well as distance itself from Iran.