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Israel, Syria Confirm Holding Peace Talks Mediated by Turkey

Both Israel and Syria confirmed on Wednesday they are holding indirect peace talks mediated by Turkish officials. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

In nearly simultaneous statements officials in Jerusalem and Damascus said the two governments are talking with open minds and in good faith, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. Both governments thanked Turkey for its mediation efforts but neither government would discuss details of the talks.

The discussions are the first high-level talks to take place since U.S. mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the issue of how far Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The talks are also taking place as Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is facing a corruption investigation over alleged misuse of campaign funds.

Retired Israeli General Shlomo Gazit of Tel Aviv University says getting an agreement with the Syrians might not be that difficult, but getting the Israeli public to accept it will not be easy.

"Both sides know what the problems are what the positions are and all that is needed is a decision," said Gazit. "Unfortunately, with the present political weakness of Mr. Olmert on the Israeli side I do not see him coming back to the Israeli public with an agreement and saying this is my blueprint and I want your support."

Senior officials from both sides including Prime Minister Olmert's Chief of Staff and senior diplomatic advisor have been meeting in Turkey since Monday. The talks are believed to have started last year after Mr. Olmert carried out a state visit to Turkey.

While Syria's top priority in the talks is re-gaining control of the Golan Heights, Israeli officials want Damascus to sever its close ties with Iran, and stop supporting Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli officials say the talks with Syria will not affect ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas. A spokesman for Mr. Abbas welcomed news of the Israel-Syria talks, but Shlomo Gazit of Tel Aviv University says any agreement with Syria will complicate a possible settlement with the Palestinians.

"Israeli public opinion will be very quick to respond and to say if we have to withdraw from all or most parts of the Golan Heights we are not in a position simultaneously to withdraw settlements from the West Bank," he said.

Israel and Syria have fought three wars in the past 60 years and have also clashed in Lebanon. Since Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, 18,000 Israelis have moved there and the area is now a popular tourist destination. A statement from the Golan settlers rejected any agreement that would require them to leave the area. About 18,000 Druse Arabs who consider themselves Syrian nationals also live on the Golan where large numbers of Israeli and Syrian troops are separated by a force of U.N. peacekeepers.